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Election Officials as Grenade Catchers: A Case Study from Connecticut

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[Image courtesy of gapingvoid.com]

Over the years, as I've traveled around the country talking about election administration, I have often referred to election officials as "grenade catchers" forced to field whatever comes their way from the various players in the voting process.

Lest you doubt that assessment, consider the plight of Middletown, CT Clerk Sandra Russo-Drinka, who is caught in a very difficult situation in the run-up to the town election November 8.

The focus of the controversy is a referendum to confirm the mayor's appointment of a new town police chief, which was thrown into chaos when the mayor withdrew the appointment based on reports that the appointee drank alcohol in uniform while serving as acting chief. The appointee does not deny the reports but insists it is a non-issue and is vowing to fight the effort withdraw his appointment and cancel the referendum.

Here's the problem: Middletown has already printed 16,000 ballots - including the confirmation question - in anticipation of the November election. Unless the appointment is reinstated, Middletown's voters will be asked to vote on a matter that is moot - and the results could further inflame a tough political situation that has the mayor and his former appointee questioning one another's credibility.

What, then, is Clerk Russo-Drinka to do? First, she turned to the Secretary of State, who told her it was purely a local decision. She then suggested that her office would physically black out the confirmation vote on each ballot. That plan raised some concerns - as one commenter said, "It seems suspect that she would just take a sharpie to our official ballots" - and now she has asked the mayor and city attorney for an opinion about how to proceed. In the meantime, the deposed chief is threatening legal action, which will (if possible) make the status of the referendum even more uncertain.

Controversies like this are especially challenging for election officials because Election Day is such an immutable deadline. While ballot language disputes are rare, they aren't unusual; there was similar concern about Chicago ballots during the Rahm Emanuel residency dispute and New Jersey ballots during court action over the candidacy of former Olympian Carl Lewis.

The hard part for election officials like Clerk Russo-Drinka is that they are largely powerless to escape the game of political and legal hot potato that inevitably ensues. As Election Day gets closer and closer, all an election official can do is hope that politicians and the courts can find a way to keep that hot potato from turning into a grenade.

[Hat tip to reader - and Middletown resident and pollworker - Alison Johnson for sharing this story.]

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