A revote in the 120th? Progress is too slow

April 17, 2019 GMT

The fiasco that passed for an election in the 120th state House district in Stratford last November is inching, at an outrageously slow pace, toward a solution that’s unfair on its face. But it may be the best Democracy can muster.

The fix that Democrats and Republicans have been discussing at the state Capitol: A revote at the Bunnell High School polling place only, to settle an error that raises serious doubts about the election of Democratic Rep. Phil Young over Jim Feehan, the Republican challenger.

Young won by 13 votes in a tainted process, bolluxed by local election officials who gave the wrong ballot to 75 voters at Bunnell. He kept his seat in the House.

Now it’s up to the House of Representatives, dominated by Democrats, to sort out the mess. A whole new election for the entire district seems the fairest path, but that has problems. There is no clean solution.

Revoting only Bunnell, one of several polling places in the 120th, carries all sorts of issues but that’s the latest compromise floating around the Capitol. It’s far from settled, as Democrats in the House continue to stonewall the issue, apparently hoping it goes away.

As of this week, it is now too late for a new election in time for Feehan, if he were to win, to participate in the current General Assembly session that ends June 5. That’s a shame, as the citizens of Connecticut should have a clean legislative answer on tolls, Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed broadening of the sales tax, sports betting, adult-use marijuana sales, paid family and medical leave and more.

One vote could matter, certainly on tolls and marijuana, which are coming down to the wire.

“I’m starting to lose my patience,” said Rep. Vin Candelora, R-North Branford, a member of the GOP leadership who also sat on a 4-person committee charged with sorting out the mess in the 120th. “The lack of urgency on their side is bizarre...Matters of voting irregularity should be our highest priority...after the budget.”

To Candelora, the fight is over the legal standard, not the seat. “Was there a substantial error that would have likely affected the outcome of the election?”

The answer should be a resounding yes, as I’ll show in the numbers below. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, doesn’t agree.

“We believe the standard wasn’t met to justify a new election and invalidate the thousands of votes cast in November, but a number of compromise offers have been made going back to the work of the contested elections committee,” Aresimowicz said in a written statement. “There are still ongoing discussions about potential settlements, but nothing has been agreed to or finalized at this point.”

Feehan, for his part, remains agitated. “It’s a stolen election,” he said this week.

That may be going too far, as Young and the Democrats did nothing wrong other than to live in a town with incompetent election officials. Young is blameless.

Feehan is willing to see a revote at Bunnell only — even though he’s have to prevail there by about 70 percent in order to win the seat. That’s a huge margin in any election, let alone by a challenger against an incumbent.

“Bring it on,” Feehan said last month when I met him at an anti-tolls rally in Stratford. He’s a former chairman of both the board of education and the town council, and he represented the Bunnell ward for years.

This week, Feehan was a bit more pragmatic, calling a vote at Bunnell “a little unfair.”

“As a matter fo fact it’s a lot unfair but I’m willing to give it a Herculean effort,” he added. “Right now I don’t feel the election is complete.”

Here are the facts and the numbers in this fascinating flap: Seventy-five of the 1,575 120th district voters that showed up at Bunnell High School in Stratford received ballots for the wrong state House race. They voted in the 122nd, not their district, and and left.

I’ll leave it to you, dear readers, to conclude what that says about the state of citizen engagement.

Thankfully, the 122nd wasn’t close enough that the botched election mattered. But in the 120th, the official tally was 5,222 for Young to 5,209 for Feehan, the now famous 13-vote margin.

We can’t know how those 75 residents would have voted but we do know Feehan outpolled Young among the 1,500 counted ballots at Bunnell, 57 percent to 40.5 percent.

Would Feehan have made up those 13 votes among the 75? It’s close to a statistical dead-heat, way too close to call. I asked Ben Fine, a mathematics and statistics professor at Fairfield University, to calculate the likelihood of a Feehan win or tie. His conclusion: 42 percent.

That’s not like saying Young beat Feehan by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent; no, it’s more like a one-vote balance, either way.

In other words, do it over!

Here’s the problem with revoting in Bunnell only: Feehan won that polling place by 251 votes, meaning he’d need to outpoll Young by at least 264 votes to tie or win. If half the voters that showed up in the general election show up for a special, then Feehan would need 68 percent. If 600 voters were to show up — a realistic guess — Feehan would need to win by at least 432 to 168, or 72 percent.

Another problem: The constitutions of the state and nation tend to favor elections as a slice in time, and they tend to prefer that each vote counts equally. A one-district revote violates both of those.

Candelora sees those issues and agrees it’s a real problem. But it may be the best the Republicans will get as Democrats seem eager to run out the clock.

Another option: Tally just the 1,575 Bunnell voters who showed up on Nov. 6. We don’t know who the 75 were, but we know the 1,575. Trouble is, that could violate privacy and it raises practical and Constitutional concerns.

Aresimowicz and other Democrats say it’s unfair to disenfranchise the 10,400 voters who cast ballots in November by having a do-over that would attract far fewer.

Unfortunately, that’s the only fair solution. It should happen as part of the Nov. 5 municipal elections, now that it’s too late for this legislative session.