By Elio Gugliotti, Editor
As the state moves forward with mailing out absentee ballot applications for the November general election to the more than 2 million active, registered voters, town clerks are preparing for an expected onslaught of applications and ballots to hit their offices.
“It’s going to be very difficult,” Naugatuck Town Clerk Michelle Dowling said. “We’ll do it. We’ll figure out a way.”
The legislature and Gov. Ned Lamont revised state law in late July to allow voters who fear being exposed to COVD-19 to vote absentee for the 2020 state elections.
“Voters participating in the process is a good thing, and making the process more convenient for voters to vote is a good thing,” said Gabe Rosenberg, communications director for Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.
A record number of absentee ballots — more than 200,000 just for the presidential primaries — were cast during the Aug. 11 primaries. The process, however, faced many problems, including ballots not being mailed on time, lost ballots and printing issues. There were issues and complaints regarding the performance of the mailing house, Cathedral Corporation from Rhode Island, the state used to mail applications and ballots for the primaries.
For the November election, the Secretary of the State’s Office returned administration of absentee ballots back to local town and city clerks. Merrill announced last week that her office will be sending out absentee ballot applications for the Nov. 3 election on a rolling basis between Sept. 8 and Sept. 11. Absentee ballots will become available starting Oct. 2.
There were about 19,500 active, registered voters in Naugatuck, roughly 4,400 in Beacon Falls, and about 6,500 in Prospect as of last October, according to the Secretary of the State’s website.
Theoretically, every voter could seek an absentee ballot by citing COVID-19 concerns.
“There’s no town clerk that can handle that type of volume,” Dowling said. “It’s just impossible for us to do.”
Dowling said her office had already received about 100 absentee ballot applications as of Aug. 24. Applications are available on the Secretary of the State’s Office’s website as well as the Town Clerk’s page on the borough’s website.
Dowling said there’s no way of predicting how many people will ask for an absentee ballot.
“The worst part of this election is we don’t know what’s going to come through the door,” she said.
If the numbers from the August primaries are any indication, town and city clerks can expect to issue a substantial amount of ballots.
In Naugatuck, the borough received about 1,800 absentee ballot applications for the primaries and around 1,480 were returned, Naugatuck Republican Registrar of Voters Matt Katra said.
Prospect Democratic Registrar of Voters Kate Blinstrubas said the town issued 722 absentee ballots and 473 were returned.
In Beacon Falls, Town Clerk Len Greene Sr. said the town issued 490 absentee ballots and received 335.
Dowling hired two additional employees, who work as needed, to assist with the additional applications and ballots. She’s also changed her office hours. Her office isn’t open to the public on Mondays for the time being, so workers can focus on absentee ballots.
Prospect Town Clerk M. Carrie Anderson said she’s preparing to be “bombarded” and hoping to hire temporary workers for the expected surge in absentee ballots.
“We’ll get through it, and then we’ll all be deserving of a vacation,” she said.
Greene said he’s looking into hiring more help for his office, too, in preparation for a “major onslaught” of ballots.
“We have all our other work we still have to do,” Greene said.
Greene said the average citizen and state legislator don’t understand the amount of work and reporting that goes along with issuing absentee ballots. Greene, a former state representative, said the legislature didn’t consult with town clerks before moving forward with its plan.
“I feel like our voice wasn’t heard as town clerks,” Greene said.
Rosenberg said there’s no question the volume of absentee ballots will be unprecedented. He said the state will be dropping off supplies for local town clerks and covering postage expenses. He said the state is using federal funds to pay for the resources and will give towns grants to cover their additional expenses.
The supplies, including envelopes and instructions that go with the absentee ballots, are expected to arrive later this month.
“Hopefully, they get them to us,” Greene said.
Dowling feels the state needs to do a better job of spreading the message that the polls, which will be open as usual on Election Day, are safe for voters.
Greene said there was confusion during the August primaries about whether polls were open. He said several voters came to Beacon Falls Town Hall asking how to vote and didn’t realize the polls were open.
When it comes to casting her ballot, Anderson said she would feel more comfortable voting at the polls.
Dowling said the state is encouraging schools to reopen, while not doing enough to promote that the polls will be open and safe for voting.
“You mean to tell me that it’s safe for our children, but it’s not safe to cast your ballot,” Dowling said. “I really believe she (Merrill) threw us under the bus.”