The 2017 municipal election will be different for candidates, campaign treasurers and political junkies following races in Norwich, Stonington and 18 other Connecticut municipalities who are participating in a pilot program in which all candidate committee and financial documents will be filed online with the state Elections Enforcement Commission rather than at town clerks’ offices.
The state legislature in 2015 allowed the elections commission to launch a pilot program for 20 municipalities of varying population sizes to file 2017 municipal election documents online through the state’s electronic filing system, called eCRIS. Candidates in state legislative and other statewide races already use the electronic system.
State Elections Enforcement Commission officials addressed the state convention of city and town clerks and asked for volunteer participants. Norwich, a medium sized municipality, and Stonington, a small town, are the only southeastern Connecticut participants.
“The ultimate goal is, in this electronic age we live in, that 98 percent will file online, saving time and staff and paper, and it’s all in one location,” Norwich City Clerk Betsy Barrett said. “We’ve been advocating for this for quite a while, because we don’t think we should be the repositories for this information.”
She said she and Assistant City Clerk Roseanne Muscarella have been trained on how the pilot program works.
“They’ve been talking about doing this for years,” Stonington Town Clerk Cynthia Ladwig added. “I’m happy to let them take over management of this campaign finance material.”
Barrett and Ladwig contacted political party town committees to inform them of the pilot program and provided written instructions on how to file the documents online through a password-secured candidate filing system.
Ladwig doesn’t yet know how the pilot program will work in Stonington, as no candidate has yet filed campaign committee or candidacy registrations.
But in Norwich, 16 candidates — mostly Republicans — have registered as candidates. Three mayoral candidates — Republican Peter Nystrom, Democrat Derell Wilson and unaffiliated voter Jon Oldfield — have registered fundraising committees. Nystrom filed an April 10 campaign finance report, showing he raised $2,300 in March in his bid to retake the mayoral seat.
Democratic mayoral candidate H. Tucker Braddock has yet to file paperwork in the system.
Thirteen Republicans, six for City Council, six for Board of Education and one for treasurer, have declared they will not form committees and do not plan to spend more than the $1,000 minimum to require detailed campaign finance reports.
Barrett said the experience has been mixed thus far.
She said “computer illiterate” candidates or campaign treasurers can receive the blank documents at her office, fill them out and turn them over to her to be stamped. City clerks, however will not help candidates fill out the documents.
Eight of the 16 Norwich candidates brought their paperwork to the city clerk’s office, as they had for all the years prior. Barrett stamped the documents as received and either she or the candidate mailed them to the SEEC. Staff there had to scan the documents onto the eCRIS online reporting system, she said.
Staff attorneys Joshua Foley and Lindsey Leung said the commission invited all of the state’s 169 cities and towns to apply for the 20 available slots in the pilot program. Leung said 21 towns applied, with one filing late, so the slots filled easily. The full list and a brief description of the program is available at bit.ly/CTElections1.
“It’s a technical exercise to see if we can do it, integrate the town filing system, which is low tech and rudimentary, into our advanced and scalable system,” Foley said.
Foley said the online system also will be more accessible to the public. He said the commission has received complaints in the past from people about having to travel to city and town halls during business hours to get the information. Leung hopes to put notices and links to the eCRIS system on municipal websites in the participating towns.
Leung said the SEEC offers eCRIS online training for candidates and has provided handouts to participating city and town clerks to give to candidates and political town committees. The state agency also reaches out to candidates as they file their paperwork. They will contact town committees as the summer caucuses approach.
For now, even in the pilot program municipalities, the city and town clerks remain responsible for enforcing campaign finance filing deadlines. In the past, Barrett in Norwich has had to fine candidates the state-mandated $100 for missing deadlines. She plans to send email reminders and contact candidates if reports are not filed online as deadlines approach.
After the Nov. 7 election, the state will do a study on how well the pilot program worked, Leung said. The commission is saving all emails and inquiries about the program and will send surveys to city and town clerks and candidates and will ask for public input from residents in participating towns.
The state commission is absorbing the minimal cost of the pilot program this year, with three staff members assigned to overseeing the trial system, Leung said. Since it’s an off-year for the legislative and statewide races that keep the commission staff busy, it was a good time to try the pilot municipal system, she said.
“If the legislature adopts the program permanently, we would need to hire additional staff to do it,” Leung said.