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State election officials say no change yet for presidential primary April 28

City and town clerks were advised Tuesday to plan to hold the state’s presidential primary as scheduled on April 28 and to have absentee ballots ready for voters by the April 7 deadline — at least for now.

That's what Secretary of the State Denise Merrill told city and town clerks and registrars of voters Tuesday during an hourlong conference call.

“No one but the governor can make this call,” she said. “I can make recommendations, and I certainly have heard a lot of good ones today. I will take this all into the meetings we’re having when we try to make these final decisions. There’s no easy answers to any of this. Even if we delay the election, it still has to go on.”

Merrill, chief attorney and Director of Elections Theodore Bromley and Deputy Secretary of the State Scott Bates gave an overview of the plans for the April 28 primary and answered a slew of logistical and technical questions about either having the primary on that day or the prospects of postponing the vote.

In Norwich, City Clerk Betsy Barrett, Assistant City Clerk Roseanne Muscarella, Republican Registrar Dianne Slopak, Mayor Peter Nystrom and Alderman William Nash sat in on the conference call, along with city IT Director Leon Barnowski.

Prior to Tuesday’s conference call, the presidents of both the Registrars of Voters of Connecticut and the Connecticut Town Clerks’ Association sent letters to Merrill asking her to request that Gov. Ned Lamont postpone the primary.

“During this unprecedented time, the health and welfare of all municipal employees and the residents of our communities should be the top priority,” Anna Postniak, president of the Town Clerks Association, wrote in a letter Monday. “You need to explore other options as several states have already prudently done. On behalf of the town clerks of Connecticut, I most respectfully request that Presidential Preference Primary be postponed until the Governor determines that it can be done safely for the citizens of Connecticut.”

Lamont said during his news conference later Tuesday afternoon that he had no new information about the upcoming April 28 primary. Merrill told registrars and clerks that there’s no way of knowing whether the state’s COVID-19 experience will get better or worse in May or June.

Bromley said all the governor’s executive orders about prohibiting gatherings of 50 or more people, the president’s recommendation against gatherings of 10 or more will be considered in the upcoming decision on whether to postpone the primary.

“All of those discussions are being had between the secretary and the governor and executive staff members here on a probably a multi-hourly basis each day,” Bromley said.

Merrill has proposed suspending the state constitutional requirement that voters provide explicit reasons for requesting absentee ballots, allowing any voter to vote by absentee ballot upon request. But the two associations pointed out that unrestricted absentee ballot use is prohibited in the state constitution.

During the conference call, the state officials addressed repeated concerns about the availability of enough printed ballots for both absentee voting and voting at the polls, the likelihood of having reduced numbers of poll workers available and whether polling places can be changed if churches, schools or other locations are not available.

Bromley assured registrars and clerks that the state is ordering plenty of ballots from available printers and will deliver them in the coming days, in time for the April 7 deadline when absentee ballots are to be available. He said the state has ordered for each town as many ballots as they used in the 2016 presidential election, plus another 50%. If the state changes the date of the primary, the April 28 ballots still will be good, he said.

Bromley encouraged registrars to become familiar with cities’ and towns’ reverse 911 system to be able to notify voters on short notice if polling places need to change. He said 80% of the state’s polling places are in schools, which are shuttered by the governor’s order. He said state statute requires that cities and towns use the same polling places for primaries as they do for general elections, but if a polling place becomes unavailable in an emergency, towns should try to find an alternative within the district.

As for staffing, Bromley said polling places can have reduced staffing — as few as four per polling place. But if two voting districts use the same location, he said poll workers assigned to one district should not shift to the adjacent district.

There seemed to be little chance that the Connecticut primary would be canceled altogether, even if current second-place Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders decides to drop out. The Connecticut Democratic primary ballot has five candidates and one space for “uncommitted” delegates. All four trailing candidates would need to remove their names by next Monday to cancel the primary, officials said.

And the state also has a Republican presidential primary April 28 with three Republican candidates, including President Donald Trump, and one spot for uncommitted delegates.

One logistical question was asked repeatedly and received no definitive answer: Where are they going to get enough hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies? State election officials are recommending copious use of hand sanitizer by voters as they access the polling place, and poll workers to disinfect polling stations frequently.

“We’re doing the same thing you’re doing,” Bromley said. “We’re in touch with our state officials, our Department of Public Health to see if that stuff is anything that we would have an availability for, so you should continue to try to procure it at the local level, as well. I know that there are recipes online to make your own hand sanitizer.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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