With election six weeks away, CT absentee ballots already breaking records
Six weeks from Election Day, many of Connecticut’s town clerks have already processed more requests for absentee ballots than during usual presidential election years.
Of course, 2020 is anything but usual, with a contentious campaign for the White House during the coronavirus pandemic that has forced many town and city halls to limit public access, along with a new law that allows more and more voters to choose mail-in balloting.
Ansonia Town Clerk Beth Lynch’s office opened up more ballot requests on Monday — about 600 — than it does during an entire election cycle.
Assistant Town Clerk Christina Resto of Bridgeport is bringing in extra staff that has been working longer days, opening application envelopes until 8 p.m., just to try to stay up to date with the daily deluge.
Hamden Town Clerk Vera Morrison, whose office has handled more than 4,750 requests, brought mailing labels home and asked her family to help out, while watching a movie.
And the statewide computerized registration system has been slowing down because of the extra work load, the local officials said.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill on Tuesday reported that more than 115,000 requests for absentee ballots have been processed by town clerks, who have received additional federal funding to handle the extra work. Merrill’s office mailed out about 2.1 million ballot applications to all registered voters, who in turn should send them to their local town clerks if they want to vote by mail.
"This election will be the first election in Connecticut history where every voter is allowed to vote by absentee ballot, and we are expecting a record number of absentee ballots to be cast,” Merrill said Tuesday. “Please send your application in as early as possible, use the secure drop box outside your town hall to deliver your application and your ballot, and remember that polls will still be open on Election Day if you would rather vote in person. Your vote is your voice - make your voice heard.”
Danbury’s Assistant Town Clerk Jeffrey Dunkerton said that in less than four full working days, about 2,670 ballots requests were opened with the likelihood of 3,000 to be completed by the end of the day Tuesday. “During the last presidential election, in 2016, we processed 2,049 total.” Dunkerton said an additional dozen workers have been hired to help process the flood of request from people who would rather vote by mail than head to the polls on Election Day.
Several town clerks on Tuesday said they would like voters to know a couple of things. First, when applying for a ballot, check off the reason why you want to vote by mail-in, or absentee. That was made easier by the recent special session of the General Assembly, which allows those voting by mail to include concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Next, the clerks want voters to know that under state law, the actual ballots won’t be mailed back until Oct. 2.
“So far we’re keeping up with it,” said Lynch, stressing that the 600 requests for absentee ballots that arrived in the mail on Monday were more than the usual 300 to 400 her office receives in a typical election year. The ballots requests are on top of the usual town clerk functions, including recording property transactions and issuing dog liceneses.
Clerks on Tuesday complained about the speed of the online state voter registry, likely stuttering from the extra work as local clerks verify individual voter eligibility.
“The system is very slow today,” Budkins said, adding that four years ago, Greenwich received about 5,000 absentee ballots. This year, the town might have 15,000 mailed in. “We only have a small staff, with three full-time and two part-timers.”
Statewide, as of Tuesday, the town of West Hartford reported the largest receipt of requests, at 7,854 as of Tuesday. Norwalk processed 5,737; Branford has handled 2,270 requests; Danbury, 1,684; Fairfield, 2,100; Greenwich, 1,666; Middletown, 808; Newtown, 1,697; Ridgefield, 2,415; Shelton, 1,814; Westport, 1,225; and Stamford, 744.
“We’re very busy,” Resto said from Bridgeport City Hall. “We’re plugging away.” With a typical election in the city attracting about 2,000 absentee ballots, that total was surpassed by Tuesday morning.
Morrison, the Hamden town clerk for the last quarter century, said the town usually processes about 2,500 absentee ballots, so the current election is going to require double that very soon, even as Town Hall remains mostly closed to the public. Thousands of election documents now fill the town clerk’s vault.
New hires for Morrison’s staff, whom she refers to as the “vault squad” have been given make-shift ID badges to make it easier for city employees to pick them out as most of the public has to make appointments and clear coronavirus protocols. She said that about 100 applications have been sent back to senders because of minor problems, such as failure to check off a reason for requesting an absentee ballot.
Morrison says it’s so crowded in her office, she is worried about the state mandate to begin counting completed absentee ballots during the week before the election. In particular, she is worried about the chain of custody, keeping ballots and envelopes together.
“We are not really a mail-in state,” she said. “New York State has county government and county boards of elections. We’re expected to do everything, even with the buildings closed. My vault looks like a warehouse. And we’re doing this along with everything else, from recording deeds on a house, to veterans’ records. We even know the sex of people’s dogs.”
An earlier version of this report had Westbrook with the highest number of absentee ballot requests. But that total was the result of a glitch in the Secretary of the State’s data base. West Hartford had the highest number of processed ballots.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @KenDixonCT