Registrars, Officials Step Up With Well Wishes As SOTS Merrill Steps Down
HARTFORD — Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill resigned effective June 30, leaving her office six months before her third term was to end, to spend more time with her husband who is facing health problems from Parkinson’s disease. Governor Ned Lamont has appointed Mark F. Kohler of North Haven to fill the vacancy.
According to the Associated Press, the veteran Democrat, who was first elected as the state’s top elections official in 2010 after serving 17 years in the Connecticut General Assembly, said that it was a hard decision, considering this is an election year, and that she feels responsible for making sure it runs smoothly. However, Merrill, 73, said she can no longer juggle the job and helping care for her husband.
“It’s too much for me. I can’t do both, and I have to be at home,” Merrill told the AP. “I don’t have full-time caretakers, and it wouldn’t work, anyway. He’s very dependent on me, and I’m dependent on him in a lot of ways.”
Mike Pazniokas at CT Mirror reported that in November, Merrill sold her home in the West End of Hartford to move back to Mansfield, the college town she represented in the House. It is close to the doctors and social circle of her husband, Stephen Leach, a retired physician.
Leach, 78, has Parkinson’s disease and fell critically ill last fall with sepsis, spiking a fever of 105. He contracted COVID-19 during what became a protracted rehabilitation stay in a nursing home.
“He’s been getting stronger, but he still gets periodic infections and has to go to the hospital,” Merrill said. “I’ve got some people coming in that help me, but you know, basically, I have to be here for him. What can I say?”
According to the AP, Merrill announced about a year ago that she would not be seeking a fourth term, saying it was time for a “new generation” to “step up” with new ideas on how to further modernize voting and protect voters’ rights. But since then, she’s been grappling with how to finish out her term, given her husband’s changing medical condition.
“I’ve been thinking about this for months and trying to figure out if I can manage it,” said Merrill, who has spoken multiple times with Democratic Gov Ned Lamont about her family’s situation.
“He’s been terrific, and he gets it,” Merrill said. “Family first.”
As required by state statute, when the legislature is not in session the responsibility to fill a vacancy for a constitutional officer falls to the governor. That appointee serves the remainder of the constitutional officer’s term. Governor Lamont will announce an appointment soon, according to a release on Merrill’s departure.
According to the AP, while Scott Bates currently serves as deputy secretary of the state, a job he has held since January 2017, there is no requirement that Lamont choose him. Bates, a former senior adviser with a nongovernmental organization that works on political party development and good governance issues worldwide, is also a former chair of the Connecticut Port Authority.
Merrill listed the numerous initiatives her office and the General Assembly have taken over the years to beef up digital security, train and certify local election officials, fully staff the office, and take steps to make it easier for people to vote, including the implementation of online voter registration, Election Day registration, automatic voter registration through the motor vehicles department, dropboxes for absentee ballots, and a ballot tracking system.
Merrill, a former president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, is leaving office at a time when secretaries of state and election clerks across the country have had to deal with death threats, harassment and unfounded accusations of fraud. While Merrill has received some public criticism from Republicans at times, she said it pales in comparison to what her colleagues are experiencing in other states.
“I always make the point that Connecticut has great elections. We’re doing a wonderful job — 2020 was the best election I can remember, even in the face of COVID and all the changes we had to make,” she said. “So I think that has helped people feel like, ‘Oh, in Connecticut, we’re pretty good. Maybe those other states are having trouble.’”
A number of state and local officials weighed in on Merrill’s departure.
Newtown Democratic Registrar of Voters LeReine Frampton said she met Merrill at a Labor Day Parade a few years ago.
“We talked all through that parade and I saw how dedicated she is,” said Frampton. “She has increased accountability in the election process. I understand health and family have to come first. I am sorry she had to leave before her term. She was close to finishing some of her goals.”
Frampton said she was glad to see she endorsed a successor to help guide registrars on the path she was on.
“We need to keep our state with checks and balances and without disenfranchising legitimate voters,” Frampton added. “Denise was the third Secretary of State I have worked under. I am hoping the voters again choose wisely this November and continue to protect our system. She has worked tirelessly during her tenure and leaves large shoes to fill, figuratively.”
Erica Canfield, Newtown’s Republican registrar of voters, thanked Merrill for her time serving Connecticut.
“I wish her the best in her future endeavors, and my thoughts and prayers are with her and her husband during this difficult time,” said Canfield.
Senator Tony Hwang (R-Fairfield) released the following statement.
“As a former Ranking member on the Government Administration and Elections Committee, I had many interactions with Secretary of the State Merrill during the legislative process,” said Hwang. “While we may have respectfully disagreed on certain public policies, I always found her to be professional, knowledgeable, personable and kind. I commend Secretary Merrill on her years of dedicated public service, both as a multi-term state representative and as Connecticut’s top elections officer. I wish Secretary Merrill and her family well during this difficult time.”
Lamont called Merrill a “dear friend,” and her exit from public service “is a tremendous loss for the people of Connecticut.”
“Denise has had a long history of serving the public good in Connecticut and has become one of the most respected secretaries of state in the country,” said Lamont. “I am proud to have partnered with her on our collected efforts to increase access to voter registration, increase access to casting a ballot, increase election transparency, and streamline the way businesses interact with our state government. It can’t go without noting that our most recent statewide election resulted in the highest number of registered voters casting ballots in our state’s history, which is a credit to Denise’s efforts to encourage voter participation. Denise has delivered results, and our state is stronger because of her efforts. My prayers are with her and her family, and I thank her for everything she has given to Connecticut.”
Lt Governor Susan Bysiewicz thanked Merrill for “her almost 30 years of dedicated public service and for her work not just as Secretary of the State, but as a State Representative and Majority Leader.”
“I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Denise since 1992, when we began serving together in the House of Representatives,” said Bysiewicz. “I served as chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, with Denise as vice-chair. Together we worked to implement public financing, a centralized voter registration system, and improve the security of our state’s elections, all reforms which eventually were enacted in Connecticut. She has been a passionate advocate for increasing voter participation and election security, and led our state through the 2020 election, turning out a historic 1.86 million residents. Our state elections are more secure and efficient thanks to her hard work. Our thoughts are with Denise at this time, and we send our love and prayers to her family.”
Attorney General William Tong said Merrill has been “a champion for free, fair, and safe elections during an era of unprecedented and unrelenting challenges.”
“Secretaries of State nationwide have never been more critical in protecting the safety of voters, and the legitimacy of our elections against disinformation and partisan voter suppression efforts,” said Tong. “Denise Merrill has set the standard for professionalism. She ensured that every Connecticut voter had the ability to cast their ballot safely during the pandemic, and led nationwide efforts to safeguard our elections against cyberthreats and disinformation. She has been a powerful voice in state government since her days in the legislature. She has always been an important mentor to me and so many others. It was my honor to serve with Secretary Merrill as a state representative, and when she was my Majority Leader in the House. I had a special privilege to continue to serve with her as a constitutional officer, where together we protected the integrity of Connecticut elections. I wish her and her family all the best in this new chapter in her career.”
Connecticut law provides that if the Office of the Secretary of the State becomes vacant when the General Assembly is not in session, the governor shall fill the position. Kohler will begin serving effective July 11, 2022, and he will remain in the position until the newly elected Secretary of the State assumes office.
Kohler retired earlier this year following a 30-year career in the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General, serving as an associate attorney general. During his three decades with the office, he served within several of its divisions, most notably from 2011 to 2021 as the head of the Special Litigation Department, which is responsible for representing all state constitutional officers, the legislature, and the judiciary, with responsibilities over election matters, charities, gaming, and federal Indian tribal issues.
In a release about the appointment, Kohler said. “I have the utmost respect, appreciation, and admiration for the work Denise Merrill accomplished in this role, and I look forward to working with her dedicated team of professionals to ensure that our elections are carried out in an accessible, fair, and transparent manner."
Associate Editor Jim Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.