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Connecticut Primaries Underway As Absentee Deadline Extended

New Haven City Clerk Michael B. Smart talks to a voter outside City Hall, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.
Ali Oshinskie
Connecticut Public Radio
New Haven City Clerk Michael B. Smart talks to a voter outside City Hall, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020.

Voters go to the polls today in an unusual election year. With over 300,000 absentee ballots requested for the primary elections, much of the voting has -- or should have -- already happened. But between delayed ballot mailing and postal service disruptions from Tropical Storm Isaias, many voters received their ballots late.

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New Haven resident Rhonda Corey was one of those navigating the complications of absentee voting. She said voting for her is a family tradition.

“Like I’ve been, since I turned 18 -- that’s my father, he was like, ‘You’re gonna register to vote’ and that’s what it’s been all my life,” she said.

Corey and her father, William, sat on a picnic table outside New Haven City Hall Monday to fill in their absentee ballots. They decided to skip voting through the mail. They applied for their absentee ballots and then submitted them in person, steps from where voters go to the polls. 

For those who used the mail system, whether their votes actually count will come down to timing. By state law, ballots not in the hands of town clerks by 8 p.m. on primary night cannot be counted, and that includes those still in the mail.

But in an extraordinary last-ditch move, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill appealed to Gov. Ned Lamont to issue an executive order Monday to allow ballots postmarked by election day but received after to be counted.

“The statewide power outages and connectivity issues caused by Tropical Storm Isaias have resulted in disruption to mail delivery and election offices across the state. This executive order would respond to postal delays caused by the storm to make sure every vote is counted,” Merrill said in an emailed statement. “Voters who cast their ballot on time, and had it postmarked by Election Day, should have their vote counted and shouldn’t be disenfranchised by delays in power outages, mail delivery, or historic storms.“

Lamont responded late Monday with an executive order that in effect extends the deadline for towns to count votes. It means that all absentee ballots postmarked by Tuesday and received by Thursday will be counted.

Since Saturday, New Haven City Clerk Michael Smart has set up outside City Hall to receive absentee ballots so that voters could circumvent the mail system.

“Obviously there were some issues and ... we have to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to make sure people are not disenfranchised and they're able and given an opportunity to vote,” said Smart. 

State Rep. Robyn Porter helped out at the site Monday. She said she plans to bring lessons learned from this primary back to the Capitol, particularly the need for more lead time for absentee ballots. 

“We’re gonna need to extend the three weeks to maybe six to eight weeks to allow ample time for people to get these and them to get through the mail,” she said. “And you know we need a buffer, so we need to take a look at that when we go back in September for special session.”

Adding to the difficulty, some polling places in Fairfield County were still waiting for power restoration one day before the election. But Merrill said those still off the grid had generator power. She said all polling places must have a backup plan in the event of extreme weather.

Monday afternoon, seven towns were still without internet connectivity: Ashford, Colchester, Colebrook, Plainfield, Salem, Sterling and Union.

Internet connectivity is important to absentee balloting, which has seen 10 times the interest this year than in previous years. Town and city clerks must mark those who voted by absentee ballot into an online system. On election day at polling locations, registrars will cross-check that list when voters arrive to make sure they haven’t voted twice. 

“Every time someone records an absentee ballot, it has to be put on the statewide list,” said Merrill. “The statewide list is only connected through the internet, so if they have no connectivity, they can’t process the absentee ballots, and the big issue, of course, is running lists. Every registrar has to run a list that includes ... all absentee ballot information on that list for election day, and normally in Connecticut we still have paper lists.” 

Merrill said that towns can use those paper lists to manually cross-check lists and that she was promised that the remaining towns without power and connectivity would have it by the end of Monday. 

For those who haven’t taken the absentee ballot route, polling places will be open Tuesday and will follow CDC guidelines to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

Copyright 2020 Connecticut Public Radio

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Ali reports on the Naugatuck River Valley with an emphasis on work, economic development, and opportunity in the Valley. Her work has appeared on NPR, Marketplace, and The Hartford Courant.
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