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Is postal service ready to handle increased mail ballots?

In Connecticut, like many other states across the country, election officials are preparing for an influx of people voting by mail this fall due to discomfort about going to the polls in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But questions have been raised about the ability of the cash strapped U.S. Postal Service, which is already dealing with a backlog in mail, to handle the influx.

Given the “volume" of requests for absentee ballots in Connecticut, Secretary of State Denise Merrill said she does have concerns about timely delivery by the Postal Service. But, Merrill said, that is why she and other election officials across the country have been working directly with the agency to ensure election mail is prioritized.

“They are literally picking up the ballots at the mail house and making sure they get delivered as priority mail,” she said in an interview Friday.

A mail house is a company that prepares direct mail for the Postal Service.

The Postal Service is telling voters to allow two weeks between the time they request a mail-in ballot and place it in the mail to ensure it arrives on time. So Election Day essentially becomes Oct. 20, not the official date of Nov. 3. 

In a statement, Amy N. Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service, said the agency is advising those who opt to vote by mail to check with their local election officials about deadlines for submitting absentee ballots, including postmarking requirements, and added that voters must use First-Class Mail or an expedited level of service to return their completed ballots. 

“In order to allow sufficient time for voters to receive, complete and return ballots via the mail, and to facilitate timely receipt of completed ballots by election officials, the Postal Service strongly recommends that jurisdictions immediately communicate and advise voters to request ballots at the earliest point allowable but no later than 15 days prior to the election date,” Gibbs said.

The Postal Service’s "financial condition" won't impact its ability to process and deliver election and political mail, she said, adding the agency has ample capacity to adjust its nationwide processing and delivery network to meet projected election and political mail volume, including any additional volume that may result as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Merrill estimated that up to 40 percent of voters in Connecticut could vote absentee in the primary election on Aug. 11. Since many voters will be using the absentee ballot process for the first time, they are likely to have their ballots rejected due to unintentional errors, according to the Connecticut Town Clerks Association. The association made the comment as part of the testimony it submitted for a July 21 hearing on a bill that would expand absentee ballot provisions in the state to account for the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill is now law.

"It is critically important to communicate the need for the voter to apply for their absentee ballots early and utilizing the drop boxes for ballots as the date of the election gets closer," the association testified. "This will ensure that the ballot is received by the close of polls on Election Day and reduce the risk of disenfranchising a voter." 

The town clerks asked that the bill include a provision that stipulated that any delays due to the mail house would be reported directly to the Secretary of the State and that they would not be held legally accountable for those delays, but that language did not make it into the bill.

Merrill’s office mailed 1.2 million absentee ballot applications to registered voters in the state for the upcoming primary, about 100,000, or 8%, of which were returned as undeliverable, which is below the 15% average that the National Association of Secretaries of State says is typical of elections mailings. Her office started mailing the ballots themselves in batches early last week. Merrill said there were some delays in making sure the 40 different ballots designed based on this year's primary election went to the proper jurisdictions.

"This is all being done from scratch," she said. "It's never been done before."

After noon Monday, any request for an absentee ballot must be fulfilled by the town clerk locally. Absentee ballots can be delivered on primary day using the U.S. Mail or the secure lock boxes located outside of town halls across the state up until 8 p.m. on Primary Day, when the polls close.

New Haven civil rights attorney Alex Taubes, who's petitioning to challenge Senate President Pro Temporare Martin Looney, a Democrat, in the Nov. 3 general election, testified at the July 21 hearing on the bill to expand absentee voting that Connecticut should skip the step of mailing applications and just mail every voter a ballot.

"Voters are required to fill (the application) out, mail it to their town clerk in time to receive a ballot back in the mail, fill it out, and mail it in or drop it off to cast their vote. Too many steps," Taubes testified. "Other states, such as Oregon and California, simply mail every voter a ballot, instead of leaving it to the voter to request a mail-in ballot with an application. Connecticut should abolish the costly and wasteful process of requiring an application for a mail-in ballot and do the same as other states."

Merrill said the state's Constitution does not allow her office to carry out a mass mailing of absentee ballots.

She said her office mailed the absentee ballot applications early to give people ample time to complete the process, but that also created the expectation that they would receive their ballots back right away. She said some states have technology to enable voters to track their ballots, something she hopes Connecticut can adopt down the line. Voters can always request a duplicate ballot from their town clerks if they're worried that their ballot hasn't yet arrived, and just destroy the other ballot when it arrives in the mail, she said. And the ballot boxes outside of town halls are an option for voters who are worried about sending their ballots in the mail due to delays or other reasons, she said.  

Barbara Crouch, the Republican Registrar of Voters in Sprague, said in a phone interview late last week that she's fielded concerns from "nervous" voters who applied for an absentee ballot and still hadn't received their ballots yet. Most of town halls are closed and require residents to make an appointment to come in, or are operating at reduced hours, which could complicate or slow down the proces of requesting a ballot, she said.

"If the primary absentee ballots are an issue, people may not trust the process in November and may not vote at all," she said. "That's my biggest fear."

j.bergman@theday.com

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