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Town and city clerks shift schedules to account for election

Throughout southeastern Connecticut, town and city clerks are changing their office hours in anticipation of an influx of absentee ballots and ballot applications.

For the first time, Connecticut voters were sent absentee ballot applications by the state ahead of this year’s Aug. 11 primary and the presidential election. Municipal clerks are facing an increased workload, first due to an executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont stipulating that eligible voters could vote absentee in the primary because of the pandemic, then because the legislature passed a bill in July expanding absentee ballot provisions and essentially extending Lamont’s executive order. 

These changes have caused clerks to adjust.

Old Lyme Town Clerk Vicki Urbowicz said starting next week she is planning on closing her office to the public for a few hours in the afternoon, except in specific cases.

“Our First Selectman sent me something from The Day about Groton varying its hours and wanted me to look at it, but we’ve just been so inundated here between closings and absentee ballots that I haven’t had five minutes,” Urbowicz said. “It’s crazy. We’ll get through it, but we want people to know, just be patient.”

Urbowicz said her office is considering putting a message on its answering machines telling people that staff will get back to them as soon as possible, but they are presently busy with the election.

Earlier this week, Groton Town Clerk Betsy Moukawsher had announced the shifting of office hours for walk-in business due "to the unprecedented saturation of requests for absentee ballots for the November 3, 2020 General Election." But on Thursday, she sent out another announcement: "due to an unexpected exposure to COVID-19," her office will not allow walk-in customers until further notice. She instructed people not to knock on the door.

For vital records in Groton, call (860) 441-6640 after 1 p.m. For questions on land records, which may be mailed, call (860) 441-6642.

In Waterford, Town Clerk David Campo notified the public this week of an altered schedule: From Sept. 23 to Oct. 2, the clerk’s office will be open between 8 a.m. and noon for all business.

From noon to 4 p.m., the office "will be open ONLY for election related services, marriage licenses, and death certificates,” Campo wrote. “Thank you for understanding as we process up to 10,000 absentee ballots securely and efficiently.”

Stonington was one of the first towns to make a move to a new schedule, as The Day reported on Sept. 14. Town Clerk Cynthia Ladwig announced that, beginning Sept. 28 and continuing through Nov. 6, her office will be closed to most in-person business so she and her two-person staff can process and issue what is expected to be a flood of absentee ballot applications for the election.

The town has nearly 14,000 registered voters and Ladwig said she expects many of them will be voting by absentee ballot. She explained that requests from people coming into her office to do business would make it difficult to process all the absentee ballot requests.

She said the two exceptions to the closure are those who need to obtain marriage licenses or file death certificates. All other business can be done by mail or placing it in a drop box on the front steps of Town Hall.

Jill Keith, town clerk and tax collector in Preston, said her office, which will keep the same hours going forward, is still open by appointment only, or meets people by doorbell in the parking lot. During the primary, Keith and the office staff had to put in extra hours, including on weekends. The office is normally closed on Mondays, but will be open a full day Monday, Nov. 2, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. only for absentee ballots. The town is not hiring extra staff, but Keith and her two assistants are willing to work the extra time. The town received $1,200 from a state grant meant to help municipalities for the election, which will be used to cover overtime for the staff.

“We expect to handle at most 2,600 ballots, 80% of the town’s electorate, which was the total recommended by the Secretary of the State’s Office,” Keith said.

Norwich City Clerk Betsy Barrett said last week she plans to use her city's $15,953 state grant to hire temporary staff to handle the 10,000 to 12,000 absentee ballots the office expects to receive for the election. The office is open by appointment only and has not seen a slowdown in activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Barrett said the office could not close or reduce hours for public business.

There are currently no in-person services offered in the New London City Clerk’s Office. The city plans to use the state money, about $11,000, to hire two extra workers and staff will work overtime to handle the absentee ballots. Based on the primary numbers, the city expects upward of 60% — 4,000 to 5,000 — absentee ballots to come in.

East Lyme Town Clerk Karen Miller Galbo said she is considering cutting back hours for non-election business but isn't sure about doing so all day. For example, she may decide to stay open until noon for all other business, and then be open after noon just for absentee ballots, marriage licenses and death certificates. She hasn't made a decision yet but wants to give a week's notice of any change.

Montville, North Stonington, Ledyard and Lyme, more rural towns, are expecting a more manageable amount of work related to the election, and are not planning to change town clerk hours.

“We’re just shy of 2,000 registered voters, and as of right now we have 450 absentee ballot applications, whereas other towns have thousands,” Lyme Town Clerk Lisa Winzer said Thursday.

Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Greg Smith, Kimberly Drelich, Erica Moser and Amanda Hutchinson contributed to this report.

s.spinella@theday.com

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