State to towns: Mailing absentee ballots is your problem
With the crush of election season underway, the state has told town clerks they will be in charge of mailing an estimated 1 million absentee ballots for the November election, rather than a third-party mail house contracted by the state.
The Secretary of the State’s office informed town clerks of the change late Monday and confirmed it Tuesday, sparking outrage among clerks who say many offices don’t have the resources to pull off the task as coronavirus has shifted voting from more than 90 percent in-person to mostly by mail this year.
“This undertaking will be very similar to the Department of Labor in their effort to process thousands of unemployment claims this past spring for the residents of our state,” Anna Posniak, president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association, wrote in an email Monday night to all town clerks.
The switch comes as state and local elections officials cope with an apparent, controversial slowdown of the United States Postal Service. And it comes after an Aug. 11 primary in which the state sent out 300,000 absentee ballots, some of them too late for voters to use.
The state will still mail absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters in the coming weeks, about 2.1 million in all. Town clerks will receive the applications, as always, and process them before sending out a ballot.
That is a departure from the system devised for the Aug. 11 primary election, for which the state hired an outside vendor to send out the ballots after they were processed.
Clerks had expected the state to do that for the much busier general election of Nov. 3, perhaps even with a second vendor to help. Instead, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said, there will be no vendor.
“It would be impossible to get a mail house on board in time to fulfill this,” said Gabe Rosenberg of the secretary of the state’s office, in a written statement. “The most important thing is that every voter is able to cast their ballot without jeopardizing their health, the best way to ensure that every voter, to get an absentee ballot is to let the town clerks fulfill that.”
Towns will receive help, however, from the secretary of the state’s office — in the form of money to cover added expenses, systems support and materials “in amounts that may be more that you request,” the office said in a letter to municpal officials.
“We will target 80 percent of the electorate in our shipments. So please be sure you have sufficient area to house numerous boxes of supplies.”
There will be more than 500 ballot styles for the November election, according to the Secretary of the State’s office. That, they said, would make it unmanageable for mail houses to power up massive equipment for most of the smaller batches.
The change comes after a mixup involving the state, towns and Cathedral Corp., the Rhode Island-based vendor hired for the primary. Town clerks said they unexpectedly were required to mail an additional 20,000 ballots just days prior to the primary — ballots they thought were to be mailed by Cathedral.
That, combined with mail delays, apparently resulted in many people receiving their ballot too late or not at all, causing them to choose between voting at all or heading to the polls to vote in person.
“This unilateral decision now confers onto TCs the task of processing thousands of absentee ballots applications with very little to time to prepare the resources needed to accomplish this colossal undertaking,” Posniak wrote.
“Staff will need to hired and trained on how to enter the data from each absentee ballot application and to select the correct district ballot while preparing the absentee ballot set for the voters. We will need to find office space large enough to allow for social distancing measures and is equipped with the infrastructure to handle several computers.”
State Sen. Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who has been an outspoken opponent to the absentee ballot process developed by Merrill’s office, said the state’s decision not to rely on an outside mail vendor proves the process didn’t work in August.
“The Secretary of the State tried her methodology for the primary,” Fasano said. “Although she claimed success, she’s admitting defeat by not doing it in November.”
Fasano said he is still opposed to Merrill mailing out absentee ballot applications. Instead, he said, she should mail out letters to every eligible voter informing them of how to apply for an absentee ballot. Fasano said he believes this would prevent an influx of applications, causing an undue burden on the town clerks.
“That’s unfair, that’s unjust, it’s irresponsible, and it’s just not even courteous of the problems that these town clerks are going to be facing,” Fasano said.
Merrill is urging voters using absentee ballots to deposit them in mail-style boxes in every town, typically at town halls. The dropoff boxes do not require a stamp.
Fasano earlier this week called for Attorney General William Tong to “investigate the failure of the absentee ballot system in Connecticut’s primary election,” a request Tong denied.
At least one registrar, Republican Fred DeCaro III of Greenwich, called for the state to leave it to the towns to distribute ballots in order to avert problems. It’s possible that local mailing will speed he arrival of the ballots.
While town clerks have historically handled absentee ballot mailing, that has comprised a small fraction of the overall votes cast — roughly 130,000 of the 1.6 million votes cast in Connecticut in the 2016 presidential election, for example.
This November, it is anticipated that as many as 60 percent of ballots — more than 1 million in Connecticut — could be cast by mail as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the Aug. 11 primary, which was only open to voters registered with a specific party, just 72,000 votes were cast in person, while nearly 227,000 were cast by absentee ballot, unofficial records show.
Posniak expressed concerns about staffing and training for new staff, as well as a lack of mail supplies, and, most importantly, the time need to process applications and physically mail every ballot.
“In our country elections are the backbone of our democracy, and it's of the utmost importance that elections are successfully administered in a year marred with constant crisis,” Posniak wrote to the clerks. “I cannot stress the importance of preparing, making a well-thought out and comprehensive plan, and executing against it. Please take what little time we have to meet with you municipal CEO to discuss the resources you desperately need to successfully administer this election.”
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