Absentee ballot applications surge

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Elio Gugliotti and Michael Puffer, Staff

A drop box for absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications is set up outside Naugatuck Town Hall July 21. The state extended the use of absentee ballots for the Aug. 11 primary due to the coronavirus. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Len Greene Sr. has been town clerk in Beacon Falls since 2012, and he’s never seen so many people apply for an absentee ballot.

As of July 22, Greene said his office had received nearly 400 absentee ballot applications for the Aug. 11 primary.

“This is the most I’ve ever done in all the years I’ve been here,” Greene said.

In the 2016 presidential primary, Greene said about 50 people voted by absentee ballot in Beacon Falls. That number increased to 230 for the presidential election that year, he said.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill had applications for absentee ballots for the Aug. 11 primaries mailed to 1.2 million registered Republicans and Democrats, with prepaid return postage. Federal money helped paid for the mailing, as well as for a ballot box in every Connecticut municipality. Voters can drop their ballots and applications into their town’s box, which resemble a post office box, if their town halls remain closed or require appointments because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Greene is not alone in seeing a significant uptick in absentee applications. Town clerks across the state are reporting surges in applications.

Naugatuck Town Clerk Michelle Dowling said as of July 21 her office had received about 1,400 absentee ballot applications. She said she typically receives about 300 for a presidential primary.

“This is extremely off the charts,” said Dowling, who added that most people are citing COVID-19 as the reason for seeking an absentee ballot.

Now, as in 2016, there’s no hot-ticket contests driving Connecticut residents to the presidential primaries. The nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties are fairly well assured by this point.

Democrats in the 17th Senate District, which includes a part of Naugatuck and all of Beacon Falls, will have a choice to make Aug. 11 between Jorge Cabrera and Justin Farmer to challenge state Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, in November.

The increase in applications is on top of the normal business town clerks still have to conduct.

Dowling said her office hired two part-time workers to help with the influx of applications. She said they work as needed and are paid with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Greene said his office is down a part-time employee. There are only two people, including Greene, in the office. He said he hasn’t hired any additional help.

“We’re trying to keep up with it the best we can,” Greene said.

Dowling and Greene said processing the applications has been made easier with a voter registration system that allows them to scan bar codes on the applications to upload voter information, instead of having to enter information manually. But, they added, they don’t want the legislature to expand the use of absentee ballots for the November election.

Greene said it would be 10 times worse for the presidential election.

Prospect Town Clerk M. Carrie Anderson could not be reached for comment.

DEMOCRATS SEE THE HUGE return as an affirmation of the decision by Gov. Ned Lamont to allow COVID concerns as a reason for absentee ballots, and Merrill’s drive for easy access.

“I do think people are concerned about their health and safety,” Connecticut Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo said. “I think that’s why you are seeing so many people applying for absentee ballots.”

DiNardo said the move would protect not only voters, but help poll workers, many of whom are seniors with health issues.

“It’s not a barn-burner of an election right now, but it certainly is a signal people want to have this choice,” DiNardo said. “I think if the Republicans continue to reject it and vote against it, I think it could have an impact on the legislative races. To me, it’s a clear signal that people are concerned.”

Republican State Chairman J.R. Romano said Republicans aren’t objecting to widespread use of absentee ballots, but are worried about security around this surge in absentee votes. Connecticut’s election infrastructure just isn’t prepared for a deluge of absentee voting, he said. Other states have technology to compare signatures on the absentee applications with the original voter registration, he said.

“From my perspective, mail-in balloting isn’t an awful concept,” Romano said. “But the problem with Connecticut is we have one of the weakest infrastructures in the country when it comes to protect the integrity of the mail-in ballot.”

Romano contends the “millions” Merrill “wasted” on mailing absentee ballot applications, along with “easily tampered with” ballot application deposit boxes, for the low-stakes primary should have been spent on election security measures.

Merrill’s office is using emergency federal COVID funding for its mass distribution of absentee ballot applications, hiring a longtime contractor based in Rhode Island for the job. Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for Merrill, said the cost is estimated at $1.2 million.

Rosenberg said the state spent another $375,000 for the 200 drop boxes made to “the most stringent security standards” to help cities and towns collect absentee ballot applications.

GARY L. ROSE, CHAIRMAN of Sacred Heart University’s department of government, said he doesn’t see a surge of absentee voting having any practical impact on the outcome of the presidential primaries. But great efforts to boost absentee balloting in Connecticut and elsewhere could feed suspicion of the results of the November presidential contest, he said.

Rose said he worries this sets a precedent, clearing a path for early voting, then voting by mail. Rose believes that people should have to travel and wait in line to cast a ballot in all but special circumstances.

“I’m worried about large numbers of people voting absentee will become an expectation,” Rose said. “It could become the new normal. To me it seems to diminish the significance of voting with responsibility. I always felt if you are going to have rights, you have to have some sort of responsibility. Voting absentee with no real physical presence, to me it just seems to diminish the whole meaning of a full election.”