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Why some voters have not yet received absentee ballots

The Secretary of the State’s Office sent absentee ballots to all but 20,000 registered Democrats and Republicans ahead of the Aug. 11 primary election.

In what has already been a fraught election for town and city clerks, they now have to send out the remaining ballots rather than the state, which had assumed the role in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This task is in addition to clerks’ increased workload due to an executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont stipulating that eligible voters can vote absentee in the primary because of the pandemic.

Connecticut Town Clerks Association President Anna Posniak sent an email to clerks Monday telling them she was informed that day that the secretary of the state didn’t send last week’s ballot applications to the Rhode Island mail house it has been using to distribute ballots. Posniak wrote that the Secretary of the State's Office told her “it was clear that SOTS needed to end ties with the mail house as they were not able to process the absentee ballots in a timely manner.”

Although the secretary of the state's communications director Gabe Rosenberg said his office had anticipated shifting responsibility to local clerks all along, and had told the clerks as much in advance, clerks were surprised by the move.

“The Secretary has created a major problem that Town Clerks are now left to fix with the primary only one week away,” Posniak wrote in her email Monday. “I am extremely irate that Secretary (Denise) Merrill, Deputy Secretary Bates and Elections Division Director Ted Bromley did not mention this during our 10 a.m. conference call today. ... Had this information been given to us on Friday, I know that 169 Town Clerks would have worked over the weekend to get those ballots to their voters.”

Now, clerks are tasked with resending absentee ballots to each voter identified on a spreadsheet sent out by the Secretary of the State’s Office. A statement from Connecticut Registrars of Voters President Sue Larsen said voters who have applied for an absentee ballot but have not received one should contact their clerk for a new ballot.

“The original ballot will be invalidated,” Larsen said. “Those who have received their absentee ballot should return the completed ballot by mail or the local ballot boxes as soon as possible. By state law, absentee ballots that arrive by mail after 8 p.m. on August 11th cannot be counted, so we encourage residents to use your municipality’s absentee ballot drop box by 8 p.m. on August 11th.”

More work for clerks

New London County clerks foresee all of their town and city voters being able to cast their absentee ballots if they choose to vote that way ahead of the deadline.

Waterford Town Clerk David Campo had a feeling the state was behind in sending out ballots, so starting on July 28, he began issuing the remaining ballots out of his office.

“I saved myself some work because last week was where the remaining 20,000 came from — it was all the ones that the town clerks had put in last week with the mail house,” Campo said. “I don't want to blame anybody. I know the undertaking is hard, I do this every year and just for the small amount we do, it's difficult.”

Waterford’s 64 voters that still needed absentee ballots after the state shifted responsibility to municipal clerks represent a relatively low number compared to places like West Haven, with 648; Trumbull, with 770; Bridgeport, with 916, and Middletown, with 1,674, according to numbers from the Secretary of the State’s Office. In southeastern Connecticut, East Lyme had 116 ballots to be sent, Groton had 189, Ledyard had 123, Montville had 48, New London had 117, Norwich had 114, Old Lyme had 62 and Stonington had eight.

Other clerks held off on sending out the ballots themselves and waited for direction from the Secretary of the State's Office. New London City Clerk Jonathan Ayala said his office received the list of voters still needing absentee ballots on Tuesday and sent all the ballots out on Wednesday. “I’m proud to say that in New London, we’re all caught up,” he said.

“There's a lot of town clerks who are upset about it because we were thinking the state was going to handle it all,” Ayala said. “And it's not really fair to the voters. Since we're having this issue, we're having to mail some ballots out late.”

Ayala characterized the new responsibility as an inconvenience. He said he hopes the state has a better system — or mail house — in place for the general election. He also credited the Secretary of the State’s Office for helping as many people as possible cast their votes in the primary during “an unprecedented situation.”

Groton Town Clerk Betsy Moukawsher was irked about the state’s handling of the primary election.

“We’re quite behind because of this new development, we were fine prior to it,” Moukawsher said. “I don’t think this is a good formula going forward for the general election. If people want to vote absentee, they have the ability to with the COVID-19 excuse, but we should not send out applications to every registered voter in the state. That should be the responsibility only of the voter.”

Republican legislators are taking this opportunity to blame Merrill, a Democrat, for a messy election process. But her office points to the unprecedented amount of absentee ballot ballots it has processed — about 267,000 — when town clerks normally process ballot applications and send ballots to approximately 10,000 voters.

The state had always planned to return this job to the towns once the majority of ballots were sent out and requests died down, Rosenberg said.

“This was done because after the initial rush was handled by the mail house, it is inefficient to handle the smaller numbers of ballots through the mail house,” Rosenberg added. “The town clerks have been aware that the switch over was going to happen since the beginning of this process.”

In her letter to clerks, Posniak wondered how 20,000 could be depicted as a small number.

While COVID-19 has played a role in raising the number of absentee voters, Norwich Republican Registrar Dianne Slopak said it’s possible voters believe the applications they’ve been sent and ballots they’ve sent in have been for the general election, not the primary.

The general election is currently set to run in the same manner as the primary, after the legislature passed a bill last week expanding absentee ballot provisions and essentially extending Lamont’s executive order.

s.spinella@theday.com

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