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In Limbo: Recounts Leave Election Results Uncertain

Jorge Cabrera was at a lunch with the Senate Democratic Caucus when he found out about the error in his race, Connecticut Senate District 17. Though he had declared victory the morning after the election, when the Secretary of State’s website showed he was up by 146 votes, new information had changed the results of the election.

“I was sitting with my colleagues and having a salad, and then one of the Senate staffers ran in and asked if I could step outside for a minute,” he said. “When I got outside, there were a bunch of lawyers standing in a circle, frantically calling and texting, and I was informed by one of them that there was going to be a recount. I had more questions than answers at that point.”

Cabrera was one of many candidates in the 2018 election season whose race was decided by a recount. Across the nation, high voter turnout and large numbers of absentee ballots delayed results for days or weeks. In Connecticut, there were six recounts in statehouse elections, with some races dragging on for over a week before either candidate could declare victory.

In Cabrera’s case, the problem was a transcription error; a poll worker misread a number and gave Cabrera 200 too many votes.

“It was a very honest error,” said Sarah Locke, Cabrera’s campaign manager. “Once we figured that’s what happened, it was pretty clear to me that we’d lost. No part of me had thought that we had won 220 absentee ballots on the Working Families line in one precinct.”

The recount was a fascinating process, Locke said. The poll workers were transparent and helpful, and Locke said she learned a lot about the ballot-counting process.

“I have no questions,” she said. “It’s a frustrating result, but I don’t think there were any other errors or questions that were unanswered.”

Still, Locke said the additional waiting was difficult.

“I hoped for a win, but was also ready to just start being me again,” she said. “It was a week before that could happen for any of us.”

Cabrera said there are several areas of improvement for future elections. With large turnouts, he said proper staffing and expertise is crucial.  

“Most elections have errors, but they’re not usually significant enough to alter [election results],” Cabrera said.

In most cases, these errors are a few mismarked ballots that are counted by machine when they should not be, or tallies that are counted incorrectly.

According to Yale professor and political consultant Mark Mellmen, recounts are fairly rare. He too attributed 2018’s close elections to high levels of voter turnout. Still, he said every campaign in a competitive district should be prepared for the possibility of a recount.

“For every competitive election that I was involved in, there was at least a plan for who we were going to call and what we would do to preserve the election materials,” Mellmen said. “It’s harder to do that in lower budget races, but the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee supplies a number you can call in a recount.”

In Connecticut, a margin of victory of less than half a percent triggers an automatic recount, according to the General Assembly’s website. Additionally, an election official can initiate a recount if they believe there are discrepancies in counting ballots.

“When you do recounts, there’s no way of knowing what the truth is,” Mellmen said. “You have one count and you have another count. For the most part, those counts are fairly familiar, but rarely the same.”

For Jim Feehan, Republican candidate for House of Representatives District 120, the recount did not offer much hope.

“The recount is like a football game,” said Feehan, whose election went to a recount and is still in question because voters at one of the polling stations received the wrong ballots. “If you’re on the losing side, you’re looking for a Hail Mary, and you’ve played your best game but you’re hoping that one play will win the game for you. It’s a pretty empty feeling.”

John Michael Parker ’10, a Democratic candidate in House District 101 who lost this fall after a recount, described the experience of going into a recount as the losing candidate.

“You hope it’s going to change, but when you think about it in terms of the strength of our democracy and people’s trust in the process, you hope it doesn’t change the results,” he said.

Parker said that he has the utmost respect for poll workers and for the election infrastrastructure, which for the most part works well.

To recount the ballots, teams of Democrats and Republicans first determine whether the ballot can be passed through a tabulation machine or if it needs to be counted by hand—necessary if, for instance, the ballot has write-ins or extra markings. Representatives from each party are usually present to watch the vote-counting process, and Parker said he felt his recount process was fair and transparent.

According to Sharon Krawiecki, Republican registrar of voters in Bristol, the Connecticut Secretary of State publishes the requirements for recounts, ensuring uniformity across the state.

Aside from conducting an official recount, she said that her office also checks the vote tally sheets from all the races in her district the morning after the election.

“At the end of voting, the tabulator is closed and shut down, and what’s printed is tally tape. That will give you the votes for each candidate on each [party] line,” she said.

The next morning, poll workers check the numbers on the tally sheet again, making sure all votes are added correctly. In Bristol, one race had a discrepancy in the number of hash marks, leading to a change of one vote. In another case, the ink made it hard to determine whether a number was a six or an eight. However, Krawiecki said it is rare to have an error that would change an election’s outcome.

Parker, whose recount took a week, said it was weird to have the extra week of liminal space, though it gave him time to confront the prospect of losing. In his race, several news outlets had incorrectly reported that he won the election.

Having an incorrect result was “kind of hurtful but later kind of funny,” he said. “Starting at 8:30 [on election night] and continuing through the week, I was getting screenshots and phone calls from people who I hadn’t heard from in years. Ultimately I had to laugh about it, and I still get letters from different organizations, congratulating me on my win and inviting me to events. I figure if there’s something I want to go to, I’ll just show up.”

Parker said losing the election was hard in ways he didn’t anticipate, though he is proud of the campaign he ran.

“You go from a million miles an hour to nothing,” he said. “I could just sit on my couch, and all of the sudden it didn’t matter if I posted on Facebook. I’ve just felt disappointed and kind of hurt, but now I can start thinking about what’s next.”

Other candidates don’t have such a luxury. For Feehan and his Democratic rival, Philip Young, in House District 120, the uncertainty will drag on until the General Assembly delivers a verdict in an election that Feehan believed was fatally flawed. Although Young was sworn in on January 9 with the rest of the class, a State House Committee is investigating the election.

According to Feehan, 76 voters were given the wrong ballot, casting their ballots in District 122 instead of District 120. Since the districts share a polling location at Bunnell High School, one of the poll workers mistakenly handed out the wrong ballot.

When Feehan called the registrar of voters to report the problem, the registrar assured him that it was just a few ballots, nothing that would affect the outcome of the election.

“During the recount, the registrar gave me a call and said the moderator’s original assumption that it was a small number of ballots was not a correct statement,” he said. “It could be as high as 100 people or as low as 15. My jaw hit the ground.”

Feehan said that he was especially disappointed because he had served as councilman of the district for ten years and had carried the precinct with sixty percent of the vote. According to his calculation, he would have won the district by one to five votes had the pattern held.

“The problem was clear-cut; I had unofficially lost by 13, and there were 76 votes not counted,” Feehan said. “Had I lost by 13 votes, I would have conceded and moved on. But there are 76 people who went there with good intentions to cast a vote, and now they are disenfranchised. When voter rights have been trampled, a new election is called for.”

The ongoing election has been a “living hell” for both candidates, Feehan said.

“You rake yourself over the coals—could I have worked a little harder to make up those thirteen votes?” he said. “And given the statistics, I should be the one who’s going to be sworn in in a month. There’s a lot of emotion that runs through.”

Feehan thinks that separating the polling locations, though more expensive, would be a good way to avoid this problem in the future.

To address the immediate problem, Feehan filed a lawsuit requesting a new election.

After a hearing on December 21, the Connecticut Supreme Court dismissed his claim, concluding the state Constitution gives the General Assembly jurisdiction over contested elections.

Although it had not convened since 1985, a special committee began on January 11 to investigate the issue of voter disenfranchisement and determine whether Young’s thirteen-vote victory would stand. The committee, which consists of two Democrats and two Republicans, can issue a report and make recommendations, but it is the House of Representatives, in which Democrats hold a 90-59 advantage, that will ultimately decide the fate of Feehan’s claims. Both the Democratic and Republican members pledged to avoid partisanship and uphold the integrity of the election, though the Democrats said holding a new election would effectively disenfranchise those who had voted properly in the original election.

“That’s like the fox guarding the henhouse; there’s no way I’ll ever get a fair shake,” Feehan, a Republican, said. “I wouldn’t want to be my opponent. He’ll have an asterisk next to his name. He’ll know in his heart that he really didn’t win the election.”

To prevent errors from reoccurring in future elections, both Parker and Feehan suggested separating polling locations in order to ensure that voters get the correct ballots. Feehan said that the locations are sometimes combined together to reduce costs.

“But pinching a penny has gone on to cost us a dollar,” he said.

From his background as a consultant, Mellmen said that business pressures within the news sphere can sometimes lead to incorrect results being reported.

“It’s hard to say, ‘We don’t know,’ but that’s the right answer at 7:30,” he said.

Kevin McCauley, Democratic registrar of voters in Bristol, also commented on these pressures.

“Everybody wants the results right away, but you want to give quality numbers,” he said. “We are very sensitive to the fact that they want it one minute after the polls close.”

While voters and candidates might need to become accustomed to prolonged vote counts, and poll workers might need to be more vigilant, ultimately local campaigns should be prepared for close elections.

“Every vote counts,” Locke said. “Every hour that you work on a campaign counts.”