No-excuse absentee voting may be in store for state

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By Paul Hughes, Republican-American

HARTFORD — Unofficial election returns indicate 99.1% of the nearly 665,600 absentee ballots cast on Nov. 3 were counted in the final tallies for president, U.S. House and the state legislature.

And there is an emerging consensus the 2020 elections represented a possible precursor for no-excuse absentee voting, early voting and mail-in voting.

State and local election officials had been bracing for a higher than usual rejection rate because so many Connecticut voters were voting absentee for the first time under a one-time exception in the coronavirus outbreak.

With absentee ballots being cast in previously unseen numbers, the thought was the possibility of ballot-cancelling errors was going to be compounded.

Instead, the apparent 0.9% rejection rate was slightly less than half of the average 2% rate for the previous five state elections since 2010.

“You’d expect the number to be higher because we had significantly more people voting by absentee ballot, and many of them voting by absentee ballot for the first time, and instead we cut in the rate in half,” said Gabe Rosenberg, general counsel to Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill.

More than 700,000 voters requested absentee ballots, and more than 90% returned a ballot in time to be counted.

In Prospect, 1,650 absentee and Election Day registration ballots were cast and 21 were rejected, according to the Town Clerk M. Carrie Anderson

Naugatuck Town Clerk Michelle Dowling said her office issued 4,459 absentee ballots and 4,160 were returned. She said 32 were rejected.

There were 1,058 absentee ballots cast in Beacon Falls, Town Clerk Len Greene Sr. said, and eight were rejected.

Dowling said most of the absentee ballots that were rejected were not in the proper envelope or were missing signatures.

Greene said some of the rejected ballots in Beacon Falls came in late and others were dropped off without a serial number on the outside mailing envelope.

The next legislature is expected to take up legislation and proposed constitutional amendments to change voting in Connecticut. This dual approach is necessary because voting rights and requirements are spelled out in the state Constitution and state statute.

A temporary amendment to voting laws for the 2020 elections allowed any voter concerned about being exposed to COVID-19 in polling places to cast an absentee ballot.

“I think it went off very well,” Gov. Ned Lamont said. “I think people appreciated the opportunity to be able to vote absentee. I think it kept our long lines down to some degree on what would have been a very, very busy Election Day, and I think we ought to learn some lessons about that going forward.”

There were a record 2,334,979 registered voters eligible to vote on Nov. 3, and a record 1,861,086 people cast a ballot according to the 2020 results that were officially certified Nov. 25.

“With a record number of voters casting their ballots this year, it is clear that Connecticut voters appreciated their opportunity to make their voices heard,” Merrill said.

Local town clerks agreed the absentee ballot process this year was a challenge at times.

“We were bombarded. We had to do our regular work,” Anderson said. “Some things we had to hold off. We did what we could.”

“The way we issue them, there’s a lot of different steps and it’s time consuming,” Greene said. “Thank God we had extra help.”

Anderson and Dowling agreed the August primaries helped prepare their offices for the November election.

The possibility of no-excuse absentee ballots in the future elicited differing opinions locally.

Anderson said she doesn’t think it’s necessary since voters have always voted in person.

“People go to the grocery stores and banks,” Anderson said. “They can just stand in line for a few minutes and cast their vote.”

Dowling shared Anderson’s outlook. She said town clerk offices in the state aren’t ready to handle that kind of volume. Dowling pointed to timing and staffing issues.

“We would need to hire a group of people to strictly issue ballots. This is a busy office and we’re doing many things besides election work,” Dowling said. “It would be extremely costly for the town.”

Greene believes the state needs to redesign the absentee voting process. There can’t be three or four people issuing the ballots, he said, adding the Connecticut Town Clerk Association has been in favor of early voting.

“We would be in favor of doing early voting if we had special voting locations. Other states have different district voting stations,” Greene said. “The setup is totally different. We have to look into those things.”

More than one-third of the record-setting number of people who voted in the 2020 elections opted to cast absentee ballots.

Rosenberg said slightly more than 716,210 voters requested absentee ballots between Oct. 2 when the ballots first became available and the 8 p.m. cutoff Election Day.

The unofficial results showed 665,597 absentee ballots were returned, and 659,370 were counted after 6,227 were rejected. In contrast, 133,247 absentee ballots were received in the last presidential election in 2016, and 130,639 ballots were counted after 2,608 ballots were rejected.

Andreas Yilma contributed to this report.