Person of the Week
Burkard Tallies Up Decades of Knowledge for Branford
After serving as Branford’s Republican Registrar of Voters for 37 years, Marion Burkard officially stepped down as of June 30, 2019. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
As Branford residents were voting in the Nov. 5 municipal election, Branford registrars of voters Dan Hally (D) and Darren Lawler (R) were operating with an ace on their side—Marion Burkard.
After serving as Branford’s Republican registrar of voters for 37 years, Marion officially stepped down on June 30, 2019. But if you combine all of the years she’s devoted to assisting Branford with updating voting rosters, smoothly operating polling places and keeping up with federal, state and local regulations, policy changes, deadlines and elections, you’d have to go back well over 50 years.
That’s one reason why First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove personally asked Marion if she would make herself available to assist on Nov. 5, especially because it would be the first time District 1 and Election Day Registration [EDR] would be at the newly renovated Community House. That’s also where the total town votes were tallied later that night by the registrars, in a move from the basement of the Registrar’s Office on Kirkham Street.
“With us coming back to the Community House and with Darren being new, Jamie asked me to be available to help out,” says Marion. “It is kind of hard to learn everything in a couple of months!”
She adds the EDR set-up on Nov. 5 was a good dry run for what’s expected to be heavy EDR demand during the November 2020 presidential elections.
As Marion well knows, any election day is a long day for a registrar of voters. On Nov. 5, the polls opened at 6 a.m., but registrars got to the office at 4 a.m. to be available for moderators and poll checkers, who start at 5 a.m. And, with seven districts to be tallied, the registrars stay on the job well after midnight.
This time around, Marion says she did enjoy the chance to sleep in on Nov. 5, and leave when the polls closed at 8 p.m.
“I came into the office at 10 a.m.,” she says. “And I told Dan I was going to leave at 8 p.m. and that he should be okay going over to the Community House. So I came home, and it was nice to watch [BCTV returns] for the first time on TV, instead of watching the sun come up!”
Helping Branford Since 1962
From a young age, Marion was familiar with the concept of volunteering during elections based on her own upbringing in East Haven.
“My mother had always been involved in doing stuff of this nature on election day at headquarters in East Haven,” she says.
As a new Branford resident, Marion began helping out with Branford elections 57 years ago.
“I moved to town in 1962 as a newlywed,” said Marion, who, with her late husband Robert Burkard, raised three children in Branford: Robert Jr., Kurt, and Dale.
“And when we moved here, my cousin at the time was the [Branford] Republican Town [Committee] chair. He said, ‘Why don’t you come and volunteer?’ And I did, even though I couldn’t vote here! I couldn’t be made a voter in Branford at that time until I lived here six months, because that was the requirement.”
The six-month rule may very well have been one of the very first pieces of specific voter registration information that Marion has come to know so well over all of her years of service. Like a London cabbie, she’s got “the knowledge” when it comes to every nuance and new change that’s been part of decades of evolution in the federal, state, and local election process.
Marion’s own evolution as a municipal registrar included many more years of volunteer work and rising up through the different levels of responsibility in the Registrar’s Office. During her first decade or so of service, she volunteered at the polls as a checker for the Republicans, then was asked to become an official checker, then to help tally up the votes with the moderator at the end of an election, followed by being asked if she wouldn’t mind taking a moderator’s class.
“And then, I was a moderator,” says Marion, who by 1969 was also a mom of three. She recalls bundling up her daughter Dale (now married, Dale Izzo is currently Branford’s assistant director of Parks & Recreation Department) and taking her out to canvas in one of the town’s districts to update voting rosters every January.
“We used to go door to door,” says Marion, who became an assistant registrar shortly after Dale was born.
Over the ensuing years, “I would pack a little lunch for Dale and she’d go with me,” says Marion.
Each assistant registrar would bring back their district updates to the Democratic and Republican registrars, who would then send out notices to get signatures from those who had moved away, so they could be taken off the voting rolls.
“Now we do it by the National Change of Address system, which is a little easier as far as when people move in and out of town,” says Marion.
Marion’s education as a registrar really began to escalate when she was asked to become deputy registrar in the late 1970s, about four years before she went on take over the Republican registrar’s post. She was named Branford’s Republican registrar following the retirement of Bob Collingwood. Two years after that, Marion became the senior member of Branford’s Registrar of Voters office, after Democratic Registrar Doris Freund stepped down.
“I learned a lot from Bob Collingwood, but I also learned from a good Democrat, Doris Freund,” says Marion.
One of Marion’s proudest accomplishments has been to keep the spirit of bipartisanship and teamwork alive in Branford’s Registrars of Voters office—something she learned from both Collingwood and Freund.
“Working as a team is the only way you can do it. Some towns don’t work as well together as we do. We’ve always done it,” she says.
When Marion started out as Branford’s Republican registrar of voters, the town didn’t have an actual office space for her office.
“We had file cabinet,” says Marion, who also recalls a gigantic book—the master voting list—that registrars would carry from poll to poll on election day. Votes were tallied in the vault in the Town Clerk’s Office at Town Hall.
Eventually, with a little push from Marion, the town gave the registrars office space at Town Hall.
“I said, ‘I can’t do this from home! We’ve got to do something else,’” says Marion. “So they created a little office” on the third floor in the years before Town Hall’s interior renovation.
“That was a great big open room at one point,” says Marion. “They created one little partitioned room with a locked door, so we had a place to go and store stuff all together.”
A bit later on, the offices were moved to the basement, where one of many stories Marion’s co-workers have been regaled with over the years took place.
“I was sitting at my desk, and somebody flushed the toilet upstairs, and the water came down over my head!” she says. “And I shoved my desk across the hall, because I didn’t want anything to happen to the cards on my desk!”
Today, the Registrars’ Office is located at 40 Kirkham Street, in a building shared with BCTV. While the Registrars’ Office is open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., there is a lot of work going on year-round.
“The office has to be open [Tuesday and Thursday] and usually our deputies are there,” says Marion, adding, “...a lot of the things Dan and I did, we did on weekends.”
Registrars are salaried, but like so many others, Marion also juggled a full-time career. She served as the director of Old Stone Nursery Play School in East Haven from 1982 until her retirement four years ago.
“I had 172 children with a faculty of 13,” she says. “So the girls in our [Registrars’] Office knew where I was. I would be in contact with the office and I would stop by on my way home from work if there was anything needed, or anything I needed to give them.”
Checks and Balances
The town’s old voting machines, which had to be kept under lock and key and calibrated for each election, were once stored in a basement vault at Town Hall, Marion recalls. Voters of a certain age will recall the stand-up, curtained booths (or, as Marion says with a laugh, “those big, metal clunkers”). Following Florida’s hanging chad debacle during the 2000 presidential election, computerized scanning machines came to town.
Even with today’s new tech, it’s still the registrar’s responsibility to know every aspect of what needs to take place on voting day and at the polls, always based on the latest regulations that have been applied to the process. Many, many rules have changed over the decades, says Marion.
“When we first started, you’d have to count every write-in vote. If someone voted for Mickey Mouse, you’d have to count it,” she says. “Now, your write-in votes only count for legitimate write-in candidates” registered through the secretary of the state.
She adds there’s still a wrinkle or two in that process that registers are there to address.
“Let’s say there was a vote for Jamie Cosgrove, but somebody didn’t fill in the [ballot] bubble after Jamie’s name—they went down to the write-in column and wrote Jamie’s name there. That is a legitimate write-in count,” says Marion.
In that case, the scanning machine will detect the write-in and kick it over to a storage pocket on the machine.
“It makes a bit of a sound—sometimes, people think the machine is shredding their ballot!” says Marion.
After the polls close, the pocket is emptied of ballots and all legitimate write-ins are added to the tally.
The Work Continues
Marion says Lawler is already doing a great job for the town and adds she’ll miss being a part of the office and working with long-time friend and Democratic Registrar of Voters Dan Hally as well as all of the staff and the town clerk. She was glad she could help out on Nov. 5 and that she could be available to assist as a mentor during a Nov. 11 recount in Districts 4 and 5. She was texting reminders to Hally and Lawler on that day, she says.
“I said, ‘If you need me, I’m a phone call away,’” she says. “I did get some phone calls!”
For his part, Hally says he will very much miss working with Marion, and adds that the office will also miss having her encyclopedic knowledge. Marion says she’ll be helping Lawler with the post-election check off procedure and, at Hally’s request, will be putting together as much as she can about the wealth of information she’s gathered, creating a reference document for the office. Some of it’s very complicated; some of it’s pretty simple, but can’t go ignored. In January, for example, the town, Board of Education, and other organizations involved with polling place locations—from Public Works to polling sites including St. Therese’s Church, Branford Fire House and Orchard House Adult Medical Day Care—should be notified of 2020 presidential primary and election dates so that everyone’s on the same page, says Marion.
“There’s 169 towns in the state, and it’s done 169 different ways. But the calendar year doesn’t change, and I know how important it is to get things on the calendar,” she says.
With so many different milestones to meet throughout the year, Marion has one piece of advice she hopes sinks in:
“I keep constantly telling Dan and Darren you’ve got to check your email every day, because we are in direct email contact with the state and things come up all time,” she says.
Deciding to Step Down
In August 2018, Marion was “knee-deep in the primaries” for the 2018 state election when, without realizing it, she suffered a heart attack.
“I had gone through the whole primary preparation, and I was over at District 7’s temporary site at Tisko. I thought I was dehydrated because I hadn’t had a lot to drink. I wasn’t in any pain,” she says.
She was helping to review the un-airconditioned temporary polling site at Tisko School, which went on line in 2018 due to the renovation/expansion project beginning at Walsh Intermediate School. Feeling dehydrated, Marion was given a ride home, where she was met by one of her sons. They later decided to have her taken to the hospital—Marion walked from her house to the ambulance gurney—and learned she had suffered a heart attack. She was undergoing rehab by primary day, which is when she was also assisting the Registrars’ Office, via text messages.
“I stayed calm,” she promises.
Although she recovered from the heart attack, some other health complications followed last year, and Marion began to consider dialing back her registrar’s responsibilities. She tendered her resignation in May 2019 in order complete her work by the end of the fiscal year (June 30) and to give the Republican Town Committee the opportunity and time to determine her replacement.
“I just knew I couldn’t fulfill everything, and I didn’t want to jeopardize anything,” says Marion. “I call it ‘I resigned’; I don’t call it ‘I retired.’ Because I really didn’t want to give up. I enjoyed it.”
In her resignation letter, she noted “if needed and if asked, I would help in any way possible,” Marion shares. “I want them to have the knowledge that I’ve acquired, and I’m also trying to give them all of what I know that could happen. So if I can help in any way, I would like to.”