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State to receive $5.4 million in federal relief funds for election safety, security

The state will receive $5.4 million from the massive $2 trillion federal relief package for election security and safety, and state and local election officials are working on how to use the funding, including COVID-19 protections for poll workers and voters.

The Connecticut congressional delegation announced the $5.4 million grant earlier this week. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said the state would use the funds to “enhance the safety of in-person voting in polling places, expand vote at home mail-in voting, and protect the security and integrity of the election and the counting of ballots.”

Merrill has asked Gov. Ned Lamont to issue an executive order removing some statutory restrictions on absentee ballot use to allow people to vote by mail if they want to avoid a polling place due to the public health emergency. Connecticut has one of the most restrictive voting processes, with restrictions on absentee ballot use written in the state constitution and in state statutes.

“No one should have to choose between protecting their health and casting a ballot,” Merrill said in a news release issued to announce the federal funding. “This funding is a good start in providing what we need to run our 2020 elections in the face of the coronavirus.”

David Bednarz, spokesman for Lamont, said Wednesday the governor is reviewing Merrill’s request to loosen state use of absentee ballots. Lamont issued an executive order in March to postpone the state’s presidential primary from April 28 to June 2, a date some local registrars and city and town clerks say might still be too soon, amid coronavirus concerns.

Even if absentee ballot use is not expanded, more voters are likely to use them, citing illness, said Norwich Republican Registrar Dianne Slopak, chairwoman of the New London County Registrars of Voters Association.

That could cause logistical problems, with the cumbersome process of receiving absentee ballot applications, mailing ballots to voters, receiving and recording the votes, Slopak said. Each voter completes the ballot, seals it in one envelope and then seals that in a larger envelope to be mailed to the city or town clerk.

The ballots are tallied by voting precinct, meaning much more work to sort and feed ballots through machines if many more absentee ballots are received.

Groton City Clerk Debra Patrick, chairwoman of the New London County Town Clerk’s Association, said Groton City has about 4,000 registered voters. “And I’m an office of one,” she said.

“It will put a tremendous burden on the clerks’ offices,” Patrick said. “There’s a lot to consider, not just the sheer volume, but where are they going to be stored? What is the decision on how they will be counted?”

Slopak said Norwich had a 72% turnout in the last presidential election. If there’s a 75% turnout this year, that would be more than 15,000 ballots. If a significant number are absentee ballots, “in the current process, it’s going to take a multitude of people multiple days,” she said.

The statewide Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut and the Connecticut Town Clerks Association are working together this week on recommendations to submit to Merrill’s office on how best to use the federal funding for the presidential primary, state legislative office primaries in August and the Nov. 3 election.

Sue Larsen, Democratic registrar in South Windsor and president of the registrars' association, said the plan will address cleaning supplies, gloves, protective shields for poll workers, how to set up polling places for social distancing, and perhaps consolidating voting districts for the June 2 primary, for which a lighter turnout is expected than for a general election.

“We feel (consolidating polling places) would make it easier to keep an eye on things,” Larsen said. “We’re trying now to develop how do we approach this? What additional equipment do we need? Some towns are talking about putting plexiglass between poll checkers.”

Cleaning supplies won’t be cheap. Slopak said one company has put together what it calls Precinct Infection Protection Kits. At $129 each, the kit contains antibacterial wipes, 20 pairs of gloves, 25 masks, personal sized hand sanitizer bottles for poll workers, larger pump bottles of sanitizers for voters, and microfiber cloth and headset covers for handicapped-access voting machines.

The state could postpone the primary again to June 23, the same day as the New York presidential primary, Larsen said.

Cities and towns also could ramp up curbside voting, available now to handicapped voters who don’t want to leave their vehicles.

The stricter cleaning, more absentee ballots and more curbside voting all would mean a need for more poll workers at a time when local registrars and town clerks are concerned about losing poll workers over COVID-19 concerns.

The federal funding could help hire more workers, possibly people who have lost their jobs with COVID-19 shutdowns, Larsen said. Deputy Secretary of the State Scott Bates suggested launching a statewide advertising campaign to recruit poll workers.

“Some of the people out of work might want to work on polls,” Larsen said. “We have elderly people and high school kids, who are out of school (on election days). This is an opportunity for that middle group who might want to give back to the community.”


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