Denise Merrill (opinion): Lessons learned during the COVID-19 election

Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill speaks in Greenwich in 2019.

Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill speaks in Greenwich in 2019.

File photo

My staff and I sat down at the end of February 2020, when it became clear that COVID-19 was more than a flu, that it was something that would have a significant effect on the administration of the 2020 election. Within days, we had organized the first of dozens of weekly meetings with the leadership of the organizations of Registrars of Voters and Town Clerks to plan how we could hold a series of elections (a presidential primary, a state primary and a general election), ensure that every voter who wanted to cast a ballot would be able to make their voice heard, guarantee that every valid vote cast was a vote counted, and protect the health of voters and poll workers alike.

Ultimately, we held one of the most successful elections in Connecticut history, under the most difficult circumstances in at least a century. Connecticut had the most registered voters in our state’s history and, with higher than 79 percent turnout, more voters voted in 2020 than in any previous Connecticut election. More than 650,000 voters voted by absentee ballot, substantially more than ever before, and many did so for the first time. And the rejection rate for absentee ballots was less than 1 percent, a dramatic improvement over 2018.

Here is some of what we learned in 2020:

Connecticut voters embraced new voting methods, and clearly want to choose how they vote — by absentee ballot without an excuse, in-person prior to Election Day or in the polling place on Election Day. Connecticut voters spoke with their feet on Election Day 2020, and have been shouting at the top of their lungs since then. Both early voting and universal access to absentee ballots without requiring an excuse enjoy strong bipartisan support in recent polling, and every legislator in the Capitol has heard from their constituents, as I have, how important these reforms are to them.

Our local election officials do an incredible job with limited resources. My office provided more than $2 million in direct grants to towns to give them the resources they needed to handle the number of absentee ballots received, to ensure polling place safety, and to protect the integrity of our elections from hostile foreign powers intent on compromising our cybersecurity. If we move forward in implementing early voting and universal access to absentee ballots, we cannot pretend that our local election officials already have all the resources they need. They simply do not.

Connecticut voter rolls are among the most accurate in the country. Connecticut’s returned election mail rate in 2020 was less than half of the national average. One hundred fifty of the 169 towns in Connecticut had less than half of the national average, and 164 of the 169 towns did better than the country at large. This is due directly to the investments that Connecticut has made in Automatic Voter Registration at the DMV, Election Day registration, online voter registration and our partnership with more than 30 other states to share voter information.

Election misinformation will be with us for a long time. A Connecticut group that has derided our voter files and the local election officials who work hard to maintain them recently filed multiple complaints with the State Election Enforcement Commission. Every one was dismissed, and the SEEC admonished the group about making frivolous claims. The way to combat misinformation is to loudly and repeatedly tell the truth. We did so in 2020 with federal and private funding, but if we expect Connecticut voters to have correct and accurate information going forward, then we have to make a commitment to public information.

The people of Connecticut care deeply about their elections. Even more impressive than the 79 percent turnout, the record numbers of registered voters, and the record numbers of voters casting their ballots is the 10,000 voters who heard that there could be a national poll worker shortage and volunteered to work at Connecticut’s polls. This is a new generation of poll workers, committed to holding elections no matter the circumstances, and I am heartened by their willingness to step up when we needed them most.

The 2020 election showed how resilient the voters, election officials and voting system in Connecticut can be. We owe it to those voters to continually work to make it more flexible, convenient and secure.

Denise Merrill is the Connecticut Secretary of the State.