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Connecticut clerks enlist help with ballot application surge

Town and city clerks across Connecticut have been enlisting volunteers, hiring extra staff and paying overtime to workers to process an unprecedented number of requests for absentee election ballots.

In East Hartford alone, where records show 858 absentee ballots were submitted in the 2016 presidential election, Town Clerk Robert Pasek said he predicts roughly 21,000 could be issued to voters this year.

“There’s no comparison,” said Pasek, when asked how the situation sizes up to four years ago. “Unprecedented is a word that’s used very frequently this year in 2020. It’s been unprecedented what they’ve put upon the town clerks and the number of absentee ballots that we are trying to process at this very moment.”

According to the Secretary of the State's Office, city and town clerks already processed requests for at least 355,814 absentee ballot packages as of Sept. 28. That's tens of thousands more than the total number of 129,480 absentee ballots received statewide in the 2016 presidential election.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Connecticut limited allowances for absentee voting to specific things like being out-of-state on Election Day or serving as an active duty military service member.

But the General Assembly passed legislation that temporarily allowed the coronavirus pandemic as a reason, essentially extending Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont's earlier executive order that made the same allowance for the Aug. 11 primary.

Additionally, Democratic Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, using commercial mail houses sent every eligible voter in Connecticut an application for an absentee ballot with a postage-paid envelope.

Many of those applications are now being mailed to the town and city clerks, who are tasked with sending voters back a package that includes a ballot which can be mailed or deposited in a special drop box, typically located outside the voter's respective city or town hall.

During the primary, Merrill's office used a mail house to handle the process of piecing together that absentee ballot package and sending out most of the requested ballots to voters. But there were some delays, and it was ultimately decided the local clerks were best to handle the whole process, especially since ballots can differ by community with state legislative seats up for grabs this year.

There were more than 40 ballot designs for the primary, while the general election will have more than 500.

With the Nov. 3 election approaching, the clerks aren't allowed to begin mailing out ballots until Oct. 2, under state law. After that date, they're given 48 hours to process each new application they receive.

That means clerks and their staffers have been working hard for the past couple weeks to get the packets ready to go, said Anna M. Posniak, president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association and Windsor's town clerk. Some have borrowed staff from other departments while others have closed their offices early to focus on getting the ballot packages ready.

As of Friday, Posniak said, most cities and towns had not yet received the actual ballot from their printing companies to include in the package because all the candidates were not finalized until around Sept. 15.

“There’s really only a handful of printers that we can use in this area and so they’re all working to get those ballots out to us,” she said. “So what we are doing while we’re waiting on the ballots is we’re processing all of the applications.”

Merrill’s office has provided more than $1.4 million in federal funds to help cities and towns to cover the cost, including purchasing computers, hiring extra staff and pay for postage to mail ballots to voters. That’s in addition to more than $9.5 million for other election-related expenses for both the general election and primary, in light of the pandemic.

Posniak, who recommends all registered voters request an absentee ballot this year just in case they can't make to the polls, said she's been spending her town's grant to hire additional staffers, including some recent college graduates looking for work.

She said they've been using new technology to scan bar codes on applications and print out labels, all in a separate room with social distancing.

“I know many towns have done the same thing, hiring younger people only because typically they’re not of higher risk (for COVID-19)," she said. “And also because of the fact that they’re very comfortable with working with computers as well.”

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