Election glitch uncovers long-standing error in Hamden
HAMDEN — When he went to the polls in November, Mark Costa was excited to a cast a ballot for Jorge Cabrera, a Democrat running for state Senate in the 17th District.
But Cabrera wasn’t listed on the ballot a poll worker handed to Costa. Perplexed, Costa set in motion an inquiry that uncovered a long-running error in Hamden elections: Voters in about 25 houses along a one-mile section of Paradise Avenue likely were issued the wrong ballot in every state election from 2012 to 2018.
Costa and his neighbors along that stretch were placed in the 11th Senate District. In November, their ballots included the names of Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and his Republican challenger Erin Reilly — not Cabrera and Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, the incumbent.
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The error, apparently made by the local registrars of voters back in 2011, did not, on its own, lead to a changed outcome in any election in the 17th and 11th districts. But some races there have been very close — Cabrera lost to Logan by just 77 votes in November — and it could lead to a state investigation.
“This error disenfranchised voters from state Senate elections that they should have been able to participate in for the last four elections and that is absolutely unacceptable,” Denise Merrill, secretary of the State, said Tuesday. “We will be forwarding a complaint to the State Elections Enforcement Commission this week.”
For all these years, the street list that poll workers use to distribute ballots incorrectly listed that portion of Paradise Avenue as part of the 11th District, according to emails between Anthony Esposito, the Hamden Republican registrar of voters, and Peggy Reeves, director of elections for the Secretary of the State.
Esposito said he had “no idea” how many people were affected by the error. The emails, obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media, show he was unaware of the issue until the Secretary of the State’s office told him about it in January.
The problem has been corrected, he said.
But Paradise Avenue residents have still never been told about it. Hearst Connecticut Media interviewed 12 voters who live on this section of Paradise Avenue Tuesday morning. Only three were aware they received the wrong ballot in 2018. They only discovered the mistake after they voted.
“My reaction is annoyance,” said Eric Lehman, who voted every year from 2012 to 2018, but did not know about the ballot issue. “It’s always good to have your vote count properly. I hope they’ll fix it, but there is not that much we can do about those last four elections, is there?”
What Lehman didn’t know is that the issue may have never come to light, if not for Costa and a neighborhood group text.
‘We were all disappointed’
After Costa cast his ballot on Election Day, he asked his wife and his mother, who lives with them, about their ballots. They, too, were given 11th District ballots, he said.
“We were all disappointed,” said Costa, who moved to the neighborhood in 2017. “We started knowing the candidate and we wanted to vote for him.”
Later that day, in a group text among 15 residents of the neighborhood, some confirmed they got 11th district ballots — but no one, apparently, told the election moderator at Bear Path School in Hamden.
Another neighbor in the group text, Travis Woodward, who lives on a different street, was a volunteer for the Cabrera campaign. He notified Cabrera’s campaign manager, emails show.
Costa, a psychiatric researcher at Yale School of Medicine, said he also sent to a complaint to the Cabrera campaign because he heard they had a lawyer who would look into the issue.
Cabrera said Tuesday that his campaign never contacted the state with this information, however — because, ironically, he was embroiled in a 17th District recount.
“We heard about it,” Cabrera said. “I think we kind of assumed, ‘Oh yeah, it may have happened, but it was a few isolated cases and it’s not a game-changer.’”
Months later, on Jan. 7, Woodward attended an event in New Haven called “Voting in Connecticut” where Merrill was speaking. He mentioned the problem to an official there.
Nine days later, the Secretary of the State’s Office contacted the Hamden Registrar of Voters.
Emails show Reeves told Esposito of the complaint on Jan. 16. Esposito initially defended the Hamden street list, but then saw the problem stemmed from transferring information between official state election maps and town records.
“I believe that the error occurred because the street in question splits with no connection between the parts and the program for the Street List will not accept that,” Esposito wrote on Jan. 17. “I cannot [sic] only regret that this was not brought to our attention earlier.”
Esposito has been Hamden’s Republican registrar since 1998. His counterpart is Democratic Registrar of Voters Rose Mentone, elected in 2008. In 2018, Mentone was largely absent in the lead-up to the election and on Election Day because she had hip surgery in late October, she said.
When asked the ballot mix-up, Mentone said last week she did not know any details and referred questions to Esposito. Mayor Curt Leng did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
A community reacts
Dan Camenga, a voter who was affected, said election officials should post a sign at the next election acknowledging the error and advising them who they can contact with questions. Costa said he’d like an apology from town officials.
“A lot of people are apathetic here about elections in the first place and then something like this happens,” said Paradise Avenue resident Ben Zacarelli. “It doesn’t make you want to go back.”
Logan called on town or state officials to conduct an audit of the entire Hamden election street list to make sure all roads are properly classified.
Looney’s campaign, apparently using town lists instead of state maps, sent literature to these Paradise Avenue voters. He called the district mix-up “very unfortunate.”
“This kind of error calls for greater vigilance and more training on the part of all of our election officials,” Looney said.
Cabrera, the Democrat in the 17th, said he was “shocked” to learn how many residents were affected by the error.
“I guess now the question becomes, how deep is this? Because I only lost by 77 votes,” Cabrera said. “I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Logan said he did not believe it could jeopardize his election in any way.
“As we can see, every vote certainly counts and we need to make sure folks are voting for their representative and their senators,” he said.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission had no comment Tuesday.
Staff Writer Ben Lambert contributed to this story.
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