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    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    Absentee ballot totals dwarf previous municipal election

    While most southeastern Connecticut municipalities saw a greater number of absentee ballots this year than they did in the 2019 municipal elections, several town elections officials say they favor early voting over no-excuse absentee voting.

    Due to legislation passed by the state legislature this year, anyone worried about contracting COVID-19 could vote via absentee ballot. The same emergency provisions were put in place in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But, unlike for the 2020 presidential election, absentee ballot applications were not automatically sent to every registered voter this year.

    Further legislative action is needed to continue no-excuse absentee voting. However, lawmakers did pass a resolution that will allow voters to decide in a 2022 referendum whether the state should allow early voting.

    Groton saw 285 absentee votes in 2019 — before the coronavirus pandemic — whereas 2021 had 323. As was the case in other towns, more Democrats voted absentee than Republicans.

    Town Clerk Betsy Moukawsher weighed in on this new normal in Connecticut.

    “I have always believed that voters should have an option to vote early, before an election. I don’t think that an absentee ballot is the correct choice to use for early voting because the Connecticut State Statute is clear on the issuance of those ballots,” she said. “Early voting is just that, the ability to vote early. Absentee ballots are designed for people who will be absent for certain reasons.”

    Moukawsher proposed that registrars have a tabulator, which would be available during certain hours before Election Day, and specially coded ballots specifically for early voting.

    “There might be a few problems," she said in an email, "but other States that have this option ... It would be best to research what process works best. One obvious problem with early voting is you wouldn’t be able to change your mind.”

    Norwich saw a sizable increase in absentee voting, with 223 votes in 2019 and 540 in 2021.

    New London was a bit of an anomaly, counting 172 absentee votes in both 2019 and 2021.

    Stonington counted 224 absentee votes in 2019 compared to 262 this year. Soon-to-be-retired Town Clerk Cynthia Ladwig and Town Clerk-elect Sally Duplice echoed some of Moukawsher’s points about early voting.

    If town clerks' offices have to send every registered voter an absentee ballot application for every election and primary, it would be a huge burden "to complete the entire absentee ballot process from start to finish, plus conducting all the other duties that our office handles," Ladwig and Duplice wrote in an email. They also noted it would be expensive, due to costs of postage and for additional support staff.

    “So many applications were mailed back to us because the address on the voting list was not current ... In these instances, we had to make every effort to call these people or email them to ask them where to send their application requesting a ballot," they noted. "As you can imagine, this takes a huge chunk of time out of our day to follow up on this.”

    Ladwig and Duplice generally do not favor absentee voting, but support early voting.

    Those eligible for early voting could cast their vote at a designated location, such as the registrar's office at Town Hall, just as they would on Election Day, the pair wrote in the email. “A tabulator would be set up, the voter would be checked off the voting list after showing ID, cast their vote and run it through the tabulator. The tabulator would be locked at the close of the day in a vault.”

    Montville more than doubled its absentee votes this year compared to the last municipal election, going from 115 in 2019 to about 250 in 2021.

    Waterford almost tripled its absentee vote output in the last two elections, with almost 630 in 2021 and about 215 in 2019.

    More than 500 absentee votes were cast in East Lyme in 2021, compared to about 250 in 2019.

    Even smaller towns saw relatively significant increases in absentee voting.

    Salem Town Clerk Linda Flugrad said the town received 66 absentee ballots for this election and 40 in 2019. Lyme went from 31 absentee ballots in 2019 to 43 in 2021. Old Lyme counted 378 absentee votes this year, compared to just over 200 in 2019.

    In Ledyard in 2019 there were 92 absentee ballots. For this year’s election, Ledyard saw a total of 253 absentee ballots.

    In North Stonington, Town Clerk Antoinette Pancaro said her office sees about 60 to 70 absentee ballots for a municipal election. This year, about 120 were submitted.

    Though the legislature approved a no-excuse absentee voting measure this year, it did not reach the 75% threshold of votes needed to put the question on the ballot in 2022. Without 75% of both the House and Senate voting in favor of the resolution, legislators will have to revisit the question in either 2023 or 2024. Since both chambers passed the measure this session, when the question is revisited only a simple majority vote in the House and Senate would put the idea to Connecticut voters in a 2024 referendum.

    Advocates of no-excuse absentee voting, including almost every Democrat in the state legislature and some Republicans, as well as the Secretary of the State's Office, say it would make voting more accessible and convenient to people. They also have noted that the measure passed this year does not mandate sending an absentee ballot application to every registered voter.

    Still, many municipal officials have raised concerns about election administration with such a major change.

    “In 2020 for the Presidential Election the office issued 5,097 absentee ballots. 4,837 were returned. I had numerous volunteers that came and helped with this monumental task, which thankfully went off without a hitch,” Ladwig said. “Our office became a polling place for many voters because they didn’t trust the mail system. At times we had lines of people wishing to obtain their absentee ballot out the front door of Town Hall.”

    s.spinella@theday.com

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