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Connecticut braces for elections during pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered this year’s presidential primaries and other elections throughout the country, causing long lines, canceled, postponed and more expensive elections, delayed results and expanded vote-by-mail options.

Connecticut will face similar issues, but the state has time to prepare after moving its primary from April 28 to June 2 and then to Aug. 11. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, however, spoke during a recent news conference of one problem in particular that could plague the state: aging poll workers, many of whom are 65 or older and therefore most in danger if infected.

Dianne Slopak, Norwich Republican registrar and chairwoman of the New London County Registrars Association, said 36% of Norwich's poll workers are 65 or older and they alone decide if they feel comfortable enough to be there on Election Day. She said her office sent out a survey to poll workers in April to see who could work, but now has to send a second survey.

“It’s entirely up to the individual whether they want to work, whether they feel they would be in danger, whether they have issues that could be a problem,” Slopak said. 

She noted, however, that the choice can affect more than an individual, as the spouses of the registrars she's talked to are all compromised in some way. “I’m 65, but I’m not in a group where I feel like I’m at risk. My husband has some issues, though, so there’s always something,” she said.

If poll workers choose not to work, "we’ll try to find alternatives," she said. "We’ve been lucky the past couple years getting younger people interested in working the polls.”

Lamont's executive order

Four-year poll worker and current Groton Deputy Democratic Registrar Joe St. Martin, 65, has a wait-and-see attitude toward this year’s elections.

“I think I would be inclined to say, ‘Yes, I will work,’ but I would want to know what the procedures would be ahead of time,” St. Martin said last week. “The problem is going to be November for the presidential election, because you know there’ll be lots of people. I hope the state can find a way to allow people to consider fear of COVID-19 an authorized reason to vote on an absentee ballot.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont announced an executive order allowing all registered voters in Connecticut to vote with absentee ballots in the August primary.

The Secretary of the State's Office had asked the governor to issue such an executive order to allow concern about COVID-19 infection to be a valid reason to request an absentee ballot, according to Gabe Rosenberg, Merrill's spokesman.

In a May 6 news release, Merrill said, "No Connecticut voter should be forced to choose between their health and their right to vote."

Illness is one of six valid reasons for being able to send in absentee ballots. Connecticut has stringent guidelines on who can vote absentee, which Lamont softened due to the pandemic.

The Secretary of the State's Office said it will mail an absentee ballot application to every registered voter in the state, and has promised to pay the postage for the applications, the ballots and their return.

Groton Republican Registrar Kristen Venditti said it’s possible the state will allow the counting of absentee ballots to begin before the day of the election “so that we don’t have too many poll workers in one place at one time.” In the 2016 Connecticut Democratic presidential primary, 2,520 mail-in ballots were counted.

Slopak echoed St. Martin: If the pandemic continues raging on into November, it could have a much greater effect than in August, since so few people vote in presidential primaries, especially this year's, which looks to be a foregone conclusion in favor of President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden. For example, she said, only about 9% of Norwich Republicans voted in the 2016 presidential primary: At the time of voting, Trump had a commanding lead.

Biden, Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard are the names on the Democratic primary ballot in Connecticut, while Bill Weld is challenging Trump on the Republican side.

More help needed in November

Still, mail-in ballots can cause their own set of snags. Registrars and poll workers alike say the more absentee ballots a municipality receives, the more work they create for clerks.

Waterford Clerk David Campo said he expects “a significant spike” in mail-in ballots for both the primary and the general elections. “I will manage the primary with the current staff level,” he wrote in an email. “I do anticipate having to make some additional personnel decisions for November. Whether that will be additional personnel or overtime has not been decided.”

The secretary of the state’s plan for voting during the pandemic requires municipalities to outline their approaches for the August and November elections regarding polling places, staffing levels, a list of cleaning and safety products needed and a list of poll workers who can work, as well as an emergency strategy. These submissions make towns eligible for the Safe Polls Grant, “which can be applied to meet the costs incurred to conduct an election in a pandemic environment,” per Merrill’s plan.

A major element of Merrill’s design is the poll worker recruitment program, described as a campaign to sign up and train new and young poll workers specifically for the general election.

"We have asked towns to contact their regular poll workers early to get an idea of how many new poll workers are needed, and we are working closely with the governor's office and a variety of local organizations to find people interested in working on the primary and general Election Day,” Rosenberg wrote in an email. “The state's volunteer recruitment platform will feature election workers as one of the opportunities for people to get involved (and, in this case, it can be a paid opportunity). We are always looking for young people to get involved in working at the polls on Election Day, and Connecticut law allows high school students aged 16 and up to work as well.”

Wife says no way

The Secretary of the State’s Office may use the National Guard if there’s a shortage of poll workers, according to Waterford Republican Registrar Patti Waters, something other states have done while conducting elections amid the pandemic.

Darrell Callicutt, who has worked the Norwich polls for seven years, won't be participating as an assistant registrar or moderator, his usual roles, this election season. “My wife will not let me do it this year,” he said. “When you think of the poster child for who should avoid this, that’s me. I’m 68, have diabetes, overweight, a whole list of things, so she’s adamant I don’t do it.” His wife is a retired nurse.

He said he believes fewer elderly poll workers will be available this year. “I hope more young people will volunteer so that older people, or people at risk, such as myself, won’t have to,” he added.

Tina Murray, a Groton poll worker for almost 40 years, said she's noticed the state’s search for more youthful poll workers. “There’s a few young ones that come in every year, and they’ll hang for a while, but the next time around, I don’t see them, and I wish that more of them would get involved,” she said. “I got involved at a young age, and I enjoyed it! And I consider myself a part of history.”

Venditti, Slopak and Waters mentioned the many safety precautions that will be needed in August and November, such as wearing masks and gloves, making hand sanitizer available, having approved cleaning products for public places and social distancing. Venditti said the state is mandating at least three poll workers per polling place, which she said is extremely low, as there are usually about seven at each polling place in Groton. But with meager turnout expected, she thinks poll worker staffing will be sufficient.

“We would have no problems covering the three people per polling place,” Venditti said. “We’ve actually had poll workers call in saying, ‘I know you’re going to have difficulty getting poll workers, I’d like to work.’ It’s really strange. I don't know if we’re living in some dream world that will come crashing down three days before the election, but right now, we’re good.”

Roughly 65% of Waterford’s poll workers are older than 65, Waters said, and everyone her office has contacted so far has said they would work. She stated the town has received offers of help from people who don’t normally work the polls, too. Venditti said 48% of Groton poll workers are 65 or older.

Murray said she's excited to be helping at a polling station on Election Day. “I look forward to it, to be honest with you,” she said. “I’ve done it for so many years, it’s a part of my life now. I look forward to seeing the people I work with yearly, and I know some voters who are expecting to see me.”

COVID-19 affects more aspects of voting than poll worker staffing. This is the first time Slopak’s been involved in a delayed election. She noted that the distribution of the “I Voted” sticker may not take place this year. She hopes the primary will be canceled. She thinks the candidates still on the ballot “don’t care that people get sick.”

Slopak and Norwich are facing questions to which, like most of the rest of the state, they don’t currently have answers. One such question is what to do with AHEPA 110-II at 380 Hamilton Ave., an elderly housing complex and one of the city’s six polling places.

“They don't want us there this year, and of course we understand that,” Slopak said. “We also use the Norwich Senior Center, but it’s closed, and it could be closed for the election. Ostensibly, we could get the city in there to do the cleaning because it’s a city-owned property.”

She doesn’t think it's feasible to consolidate any of Norwich’s precincts.

“Right now, we’re looking at an alternative location for senior housing, but that’s not definite yet,” Slopak said. “We’re waiting until mid-June to make that decision.”

An overarching anxiety, though, is how dangerous the COVID-19 pandemic may be when the competitive general election in November approaches.

s.spinella@theday.com

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