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Absentee voting expansion presents challenges for municipal governments

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In response to the expansion of absentee voting provisions, municipal clerks in the region are dealing with an unprecedented amount of ballots and ballot applications this election cycle.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced town and city election officials to alter how they normally do business. Norwich Republican Registrar Dianne Slopak, for example, said the city has 10 people set up to count votes, though there are normally six to eight, depending on the election. She and other registrars have said they’re bracing for a delay in final election results.

“We have no idea how long this will take,” Slopak said. “By law, we’re supposed to have preliminary results by midnight of the same day — that’s kind of crazy when you think about it. Registrars start working at 4 in the morning. You can imagine what condition we’re in by midnight. Ballot counters will be starting at about 10 in the morning.”

Waterford Clerk David Campo, Groton Town Clerk Betsy Moukawsher, Montville Clerk Katie Sandberg and Slopak offered illustrative examples.

In Waterford’s 2019 municipal election, 248 absentee ballots were issued. In its 2018 state election, 672 were issued. And in its 2018 state primary, 93 were issued. As of July 29, 1,853 were issued for the upcoming Aug. 11 primary alone. The number of absentee ballot requests for the Nov. 3 presidential election are expected to exceed that.  

In Montville, Sandberg said 1,093 ballots had been issued for the primary as of July 27, compared to 132 in the 2019 municipal election, 293 in the 2018 state election, 439 in the 2016 presidential election and 59 in the 2016 presidential primary.

“I can only imagine what November has in store for us!” Sandberg wrote in an email, in reference to the upcoming presidential election. 

In Norwich, about 500 people typically vote in a presidential election using an absentee ballot. But as of July 23, the more than 2,000 voters had applied for an absentee ballot for the primary, in which turnout is typically a fraction of a presidential election. 

“We don’t even get that many voters in our primary,” Slopak said. “It’s very surprising to us. I honestly think that people believe they’re applying for the November ballot, not for the primary ballots, and are getting confused. Also, some people think they are getting an actual ballot when they get an application.”

Moukawsher said Groton, as of July 23, has processed almost 3,000 absentee applications for the primary. In a normal presidential primary, she usually receives about 700.

Moukawsher added that the Secretary of the State’s Office has been helpful.

“If we need extra trained people, we will get the funding for it,” Moukawsher said. “Towns are not to be burdened with the expense. I believe them until we don’t get it. So far so good, everything’s been totally above board.”

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill told The Day on Friday that her office has tried to be as helpful as possible with municipalities. She said a major reason why her office mailed 1.2 million absentee ballot applicationsfor the primary to all eligible Democratic and Republican party members was to assist towns which normally mail absentee ballots. 

"We have a federal grant available for towns," Merrill said. "They can hire people and we will reimburse them 100 percent for the costs of hiring extra people to count absentees as they come in or extra people to work on Election Day."

Last week, the state Senate passed a bill expanding absentee ballot provisions to account for the COVID-19 pandemic ahead of the November general election.

An Act Concerning Absentee Voting and Reporting of Results at the 2020 State Election and Election Day Registration received bipartisan support from legislators, passing by a 35-1 vote, though Republicans argued the bill had holes in terms of election security, and some Democrats said it didn’t go quite far enough in broadening voting rights.

Gov. Ned Lamont had already issued an executive order allowing all registered voters in Connecticut to use absentee ballots in the August primary. This bill is essentially an extension of that order.

Connecticut has stringent guidelines on who can vote absentee, which Lamont softened due to the pandemic. The Secretary of the State's Office mailed absentee ballot applications to registered voters in the state and has promised to pay the postage for the applications, the ballots and their return.

Merrill said she expects results to come in later than normal this year, and that she guessed up to 40 percent of people could be voting absentee in the primary.

The main change to Connecticut’s statutes in the bill would be an added absentee voting provision deeming “the sickness of COVID-19” as justification for absentee voting in 2020.

"What this legislation addresses is the folks who have not been diagnosed with COVID-19, but perhaps they're immunocompromised, perhaps they are elderly, perhaps they've just been watching the news, and they are fearful of venturing into a crowded polling location," Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, said.

The bill also allows people who are not registered to vote but in line at a polling place by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3 to both register and cast a ballot at that time. 

Slopak found fault in the Election Day registration stipulation.

“You have 364 days out of the year to register to vote; why are you waiting until Election Day to do it?” Slopak asked. “It’s a very complicated process, it takes a long time, and unfortunately, we have lines. I can’t imagine for November, with social distancing — we’re going to have lines around the block, down the street.”

Slopak said the state should have tested out the last minute registration on primary day which typically has far fewer voters than the presidential election. 

“How can you make a decision if you don't know if it’ll work?” Slopak asked. “Theoretically the primaries are a test to see if everything will work the way the Secretary of the State wants it to work, so how can they make a decision for November, which will be 10 times more than what we normally have for a primary, without at least seeing how the primary will work?”

Several state Republican legislators have raised the issue of voter fraud and ballot tampering.  Republicans have filed multiple legal challenges to expanded absentee voting, which currently are in Connecticut courts.

Conn College Assistant Professor of Government Mara Suttmann-Lea said the threat of fraud is grossly overstated.

“Mountains of research from political scientists and legal scholars studying this issue show that individual voter fraud, either via absentee voting or in person, is incredibly rare,” Suttmann-Lea said. “Empirically speaking, it’s not the problem that Republican politicians and legal analysts are making it out to be.”

Suttmann-Lea, Slopak and Moukawsher all urged voters to be careful when filling out absentee ballots. The process is as follows:

The voter receives an absentee ballot application in the mail. If they choose to vote absentee, they fill out the application, following the directions closely. The application is sent back to the city clerk, the clerk records it. If the application meets the requirements, the clerk sends the voter a ballot in the mail. They fill it out, put it in an envelope, fill out the outside of the envelope, seal that, put it inside another envelope and mail it back to the city clerk. Once the city clerk gets it, they open the outer envelope and record that they’ve received the ballot to make sure they know who voted absentee before polls open. Then, on Election Day, the ballots are opened and counted.

s.spinella@theday.com 

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