Officials say if absentee voting becomes the norm in Connecticut, system needs overhaul
There were little problems at the polls in Connecticut on Election Day, but if the state is to see large numbers of voters cast absentee ballots in the future, as it did this election, an overhaul of its voting system would be needed, election officials say.
A day after the election, during which Connecticut saw record voter turnout spurred in large part by the more than 650,000 voters who cast an absentee ballot, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill announced that she will propose an amendment to the state’s Constitution to allow voters to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse. This year, any Connecticut voter could cast an absentee ballot, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m more convinced than ever that offering more options for people in terms of voting is the way to go,” Merrill said in an interview last week. “And it’s better for the people administering the election too. It puts pressure off that one day.”
Currently 44 states allow their residents to vote prior to Election Day either through in-person early voting or no-excuse absentee balloting or both.
"We did this as a one-time experiment, but now we’ve got the experience with it and I think it’s largely very positive," Merrill said.
Merrill said the public is much more ready for absentee balloting and her office has fielded a lot of calls about it.
If Connecticut were to join the majority of states that allow for early voting, many changes would be needed.
For starters, the state shouldn’t have to mail applications to every registered voter as it did ahead of this year’s primary and general elections, Merrill said, an effort that cost her office $2 million. Instead, voters should be able to access, fill out and return the application all online.
If the state "goes down the path of voting by mail," Merrill said it would be worth exploring a regional approach to counting absentee ballots as opposed to each town counting them individually. In-person votes would still be counted at the town level. Merrill said envisions a system in which registrars of voters or town clerks would take ballots to a designated location based on county or even regional councils of governments — "of course with lots of protocols to ensure the process is secure."
The secretary of the state's office spent millions on public education, particularly leading up to the general election, including social media and advertising campaigns explaining how to request and then fill out and return an absentee ballot and assuring voters the process was secure.
Despite that, there was still confusion among voters about the process here in Connecticut.
Rob Pero, the Republican registrar of voters in New London, said the office fielded calls from people who heard about processes in other states such as veryifying signatures on absentee ballots by comparing the signature on the absentee ballot envelope to the signature on a voter’s file, and whether they applied in Connecticut. He said more targeted, localized information about voting by absentee would have been helpful.
Merrill said she is planning to ask the General Assembly for more money in her budget to account for public education, which will be particularly important if the state expands absentee voting.
New equipment such as tabulators — a big expense — is also needed in Connecticut.
"We can’t do another presidential (election) with the equipment we have," said Barbara Crouch, the Republican registrar of voters in Sprague. "Early voting can’t be discussed until we have new equipment."
The tabulators were last purchased 20 years ago, Merrill said, and finding parts to fix them is proving more and more difficult. Merrill believes the federal government should step in and provide funding given states have varying abilities to afford equipment upgrades.
"There needs to be need equity across the country in how the votes are counted," she said.
Norwich City Clerk Betsy Barrett said if this year’s experience with thousands of absentee ballots becomes the norm in future elections, city and town clerks are going to need to plan for hiring additional staff or adding hours to handle the high volumes of absentee ballot requests and ballots as they are delivered.
Norwich sent out more than 5,700 requested absentee ballots in the weeks prior to the election and received about 5,300 completed ballots. The Norwich city clerk’s office used money from a state grant to hire temporary ballot sorters and added staff time to handle the ballots. Barrett said her office was too busy with regular daily business to close and dedicate regular office hours to the processing of absentee ballots.
Staff Writer Claire Bessette contributed to this story
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