By Elio Gugliotti, Editor
The rhythmic thumping of a time stamp machine filled Naugatuck Town Clerk Michelle Dowling’s office last Tuesday morning as workers processed absentee ballot applications for the November presidential election.
The reoccurring thump of ink being stamped on paper eventually faded into the background hustle and bustle of the office, which is typically busy weeks before an election but more so this year due to temporary changes to a surge in absentee ballots.
The legislature and Gov. Ned Lamont approved the temporary changes to allow voters concerned about COVID-19 at polling places to vote absentee in the 2020 elections.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill mailed out absentee ballot applications to every eligible voter in September for the Nov. 3 election. Absentee ballots became available Oct. 2.
Voters who prefer to vote in person can still do so on Election Day. Polling places in the state will be open as usual, with precautions in place.
Despite polling places being open, more people than ever are choosing to cast their vote through absentee ballots.
Dowling said her office issued over 3,500 absentee ballots as of Oct. 9. By the looks of mail coming into the office after the Columbus Day holiday weekend, Dowling expected that figure to climb over 4,000 quickly.
“I expected much more, I really did,” Dowling said.
Even at 4,000, that represents about 18% of the 22,087 voters registered in Naugatuck as of Oct. 13, and more than five times the roughly 750 absentee ballots issued for the 2016 presidential election.
Prospect Town Clerk M. Carrie Anderson could not be reached for comment last week.
According to the Prospect Town Clerk’s Office, the office issued 1,278 absentee ballots and received 281 as of Oct. 13. The 1,278 absentee ballots issued represents nearly 40% of the 3,233 registered voters in town as of Oct. 14.
In Beacon Falls, Town Clerk Len Greene Sr. said his office issued 809 absentee ballots as of Oct. 9 — nearly 18% of the 4,499 voters registered in town as of early this month — and received 203 ballots. He said his office issued 230 absentee ballots for the 2016 presidential election.
Greene said the number of applications is less than what he expected, but was quick to point out there’s still time before the election.
Voters can apply for an absentee ballot through Nov. 2. Absentee ballots can be returned through the mail or dropped off at secure drop boxes at town halls. Absentee ballots must be received or dropped off by 8 p.m. Nov. 3.
So far, officials say they are keeping up with the influx of absentee ballots and applications.
“We’re holding our own,” Greene said.
Greene said the town hired three part-time employees, who work as needed, to assist with the additional work.
“They’ve been a big help,” he said.
Dowling said her office has one additional worker who is putting in close to full-time hours to help with the workload. She said her office has developed a system to ensure all absentee application and ballots are processed at the end of each day — though employees jokingly compared the process to the classic “I Love Lucy” episode when Lucy and Ethel worked at a chocolate factory and resorted to shoving candy in their mouths and blouses to keep up with the chocolates on a fast conveyor belt.
“As long as we keep up on it, then we won’t get so overwhelmed,” Dowling said.
Greene and Dowling said they’ve run into only minor issues so far.
Greene said his office received a few applications from voters who didn’t check a reason for requesting an absentee ballot, and he reached out to them. If voters don’t check a reason, he said a ballot can’t be issued.
Dowling said her office rejected a couple ballots that didn’t put the inner envelope into the outer envelope provided, as instructed. She said she called the voters to assist them.
She said her office had also received about 50 duplicate applications from voters who submitted applications downloaded online as well as the applications mailed by the Secretary of the State’s Office. In these cases, she said, her office put the applications together when issuing ballots to the voters.
Dowling urged voters to read and follow the instructions on the application and ballot carefully. She said it will be more difficult for her office to help individual voters the closer it gets to the election.
As Election Day draws near, Greene encouraged voters who plan to vote absentee to submit their applications as soon as they can.
“It’s a lot easier if we don’t have to cram at the end,” he said.