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Fix the plane before landing it for Nov. 3 vote

Town clerks say they were surprised to learn that in the closing days of the state primary, which takes place Tuesday, they were responsible for getting absentee ballots to 20,000 voters who had requested them. The Office of the Secretary of the State contends this should have been no surprise as that was the plan all along.

But the fact that the clerks and the office responsible for managing elections in the state were bickering instead of smoothly working together is prima facie evidence of a communication breakdown. Whether it results in people being denied the opportunity to vote will await a post-primary analysis.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is leading an election the likes of which has never been attempted in Connecticut. For the primary, all eligible voters received an absentee voter application to make it easier for them to vote by mail or by dropping their ballot at drop boxes located in each community.

The reason, of course, is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Merrill’s approach, which will also be utilized in advance of the Nov. 3 election, is the right one. And the legislature, when recently meeting in special session, sanctioned concern about the virus as justification for voting by absentee ballot. Most state lawmakers recognized it would be wrong to deny individuals the chance to vote because they were afraid to appear at the polls. And it is quite possible the virus could be resurgent in November, though we hope not.

Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for Merrill’s office, said putting together the expanded absentee voting system in a relatively short time was like “flying a plane while we’re building it.” And while there was some turbulence shortly before landing, the plane did not crash.

In a typical primary, Rosenberg said the state can anticipate about 7% of votes to be submitted via absentee ballot, while in this coming primary an estimated 60% of voters will use that option.

Last Monday, eight days away from the primary vote, Anna Posniak, president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association, wrote to her fellow clerks that they would be responsible for getting the 20,000 absentee ballots to voters, ballots that had not been distributed by Cathedral Corporation, the “mail house” contracted to process the absentee applications. The mail house sent out about 267,000 absentee ballots for the primary, Rosenberg said. The secretary’s thinking, he said, was that clerks across the state are better positioned to handle the tail-end applications.

Posniak felt the problem to get those last-minute ballots out had been unfairly dumped into the laps of the clerks and that communication was lacking, with the issue not even being brought up during a conference call with Merrill and other officials in her office earlier in the day Monday.

But Rosenberg pointed to a June 8 document sent to the clerks that recommended municipalities order absentee ballots equal to 80% of eligible voters, send most to the mail house, and keep 20% of them in anticipation the clerks would be responsible for sending some of them out. Further, a July 29 letter sent by the office to clerks and registrars states that starting on Aug. 3, meaning last Monday, “any absentee ballot request received from any source will be fulfilled by the town clerk locally.”

Rosenberg said this switchover from the mail house to the local clerks shortly before the primary was how things were supposed to work.

At this point, ditch the finger pointing. Instead, figure out how to improve the messaging, not only to the clerks but, more importantly, to the public. Some voters, for example, were concerned about how long they had to wait between applying for a primary ballot and getting one. In the general election, the documentation should outline expected wait times.

The good news is that while no election is unimportant, the general election Nov. 3 is more important. The primary experience will provide an opportunity to assess what worked, what didn’t and what can be improved.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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