Merrill: CT voters scared Trump will invalidate ballots

Denise Merrill, Secretary of the State of Connecticut, speaks at the Greenwich Democratic Town Committee Cookout and Campaign Rally at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn. Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018.

Denise Merrill, Secretary of the State of Connecticut, speaks at the Greenwich Democratic Town Committee Cookout and Campaign Rally at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn. Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018.

Tyler Sizemore /Hearst Connecticut Media

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s debate comments casting doubt on credibility of ballot counting are a “cause for considerable concern,” Connecticut’s top election official said Wednesday.

"My office has also seen a significant uptick in complaints, questions, and concerns from voters who are scared that the President of the United States will be invalidating their absentee ballots,” Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said.

“The president's misrepresentations regarding absentee ballots have caused a flurry of fear that Connecticut voters will not be able to exercise their right to vote unless they put their health at risk by going to a polling place, even if they are vulnerable to COVID-19,” she added. “Connecticut voters should know that the president's claims are baseless and that every valid vote cast in Connecticut will be a vote counted.”

During the presidential debate Tuesday night, Trump — who has for months suggested without evidence that voting by mail is rife with fraud — repeated claims ballots sent through the mail would be tampered with or not counted. He said ballots were ending up in creeks and waste bins.

“If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that,” Trump said, again raising the prospect that he may not commit to a peaceful transition of power, if he loses the election.

At the close of the debate, moderator and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden if they will urge voters to stay calm during a possible extended period after the election when the results could be unknown as the ballots are counted. He asked if they would pledge not to declare victory until the election results are independently certified.

Trump, who responded first, said he urged his supporters to go to the polls and act as poll watchers as ballots are being counted to “watch very carefully” and look for misconduct. He claimed poll watchers were thrown out of polling places on Tuesday because “bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.”

The Bucks County Courier Times reported Pennsylvania Secretary of the State Kathy Bookvar called Trump’s statements about Pennsylvania elections “completely inaccurate” because “There are no poll watchers yet," Boockvar said. "They literally do not exist right now."

Merrill called Trump’s remarks “wildly irresponsible” and “not rooted in facts or evidence.”

“I want to make crystal clear that Connecticut and federal law prohibits intimidating or threatening voters for the purpose of interfering with their right to vote,” she said. “In Connecticut, we take voter intimidation extremely seriously and our laws explicitly restrict access to the polling places to voters and people who are appointed by the local registrars of voters to perform specific Election Day rolls.”

A record number of absentee ballots will be cast in Connecticut in 2020, due to the ongoing pandemic. Merrill’s office mailed about 2.1 million ballot applications to all active registered voters, who in turn should send them to their local town clerks if they want to vote by mail. As of last week, Merrill 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.

Election fraud of all kinds, including through mail voting, is exceedingly rare — far below even 1 percent of votes cast in states that already vote almost entirely by mail, according to multiple studies.

What does happen sometimes is ballots can be invalidated if they are improperly completed or mailed too late. In Manhattan, thousands of absentee ballots were received late by the county Board of Elections, prompting a court battle over whether to count them that delayed the results of the primary race of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., for weeks. In Connecticut’s August primary, hundreds of absentee ballots in Enfield arrived late prompting a U.S. Postal Service investigation.

Democrats have been vocal in encouraging voters to return their absentee ballots as soon as possible to ensure mail delays do not prevent them from being counted.

In 2019, a probe of absentee voting in Bridgeport by Hearst Connecticut Media found some absentee voters were pressured into voting for the incumbent, Mayor Joe Ganim, who narrowly won on the strength of absentee ballots.

The probe also found other errors like people not listed in the state voter registry submitting absentee ballots and two paroled convicted felons voting. City voting officials blamed the discrepancies on human error and the huge volume of absentee ballot applications that reached about 2,000 in the primary.

The probe prompted a legal challenge to the city primary and an ongoing investigation by the State Elections Enforcement Commission. The lawsuit did not overturn the primary results.

Human errors do in election administration do occur — the wrong checked box can move someone from an active to inactive voter list, or make it appear that someone voted when they didn’t.

With an eye on November, the state Republican Party has taken its concern for potential voter fraud to a new level, creating its own citizen task force to record and investigate cases of potential fraud.

“We’ve got a lot of reports of the wild inaccuracies in the data system that the Secretary of the State has,” Republican Party Chairman J.R. Romano said. “The safest way to vote is to vote in person to ensure your vote counts.”; Twitter: @emiliemunson