Former Connecticut GOP Senate candidate Linda McMahon applauds as state Chair J.R. Romano casts Connecticut's 28 votes for Donald Trump in 2016 MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
J.R. Romano answers questions from the media on election night in 2018. Clarice Silber /

About 100,000 of the 1.2 million absentee ballot applications recently mailed to Democrats and Republicans in Connecticut for the August primary have been returned as undeliverable, adding fuel to a national partisan battle over the security of voting by mail.

The office of Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said Thursday that 8% of applications have come back, a number her office says is well below what the U.S. Election Assistance Commission says is typical of elections mailings. Merrill’s office says the average is 15%.

But Republican State Chairman J.R. Romano and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano said the returns on the mass mailing expose a potential for fraud in the state’s voting system, which relies on local registrars to keep the voting lists up to date.

Romano said the state GOP is opening a tip line dubbed the “CT Republican Voter Fraud Task Force” seeking examples of applications mailed to the wrong address, and Fasano said he may propose legislation that would bar Merrill from making a similar mailing for the general election in November.

Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the unsolicited statewide mailing of applications for absentee ballots in the August 11 primary is a first for Connecticut, a state with some of the most restrictive rules in the U.S. for voting by absentee.

Merrill, a Democrat, said one irony of her dispute with the GOP chairman is that her mass mailing of ballot applications actually helps achieve one of his stated goals: Improving the accuracy of voting lists in a mobile society.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Merrill said. “This is the first time we’ll be able to tell who is keeping up with the lists.”

The applications returned as undeliverable to her office will be given to registrars, who then will strike those names from their voting lists. The purging of 100,000 names from the list of 458,000 Republicans and 800,000 Democrats likely will double the number of voters now listed as inactive.

“Basically, he’s criticizing helping local registrars who are updating the lists,” Merrill said.

“I don’t buy that,” Romano responded.

Romano and Fasano said using an inaccurate voting list for a mass mailing of ballot applications is an invitation for fraud, though there is no evidence that such mailings result in fraudulent voting. 

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill: The 8% rate of undeliverable applications is below the average for election mailings. mark pazniokas / file photo

To obtain an actual ballot, the application must be signed and returned to local election officials. Fraudulently obtaining an absentee ballot is a felony.

“Do I think fraud is rampant? No,” Romano said.

But Romano and Fasano said Merrill, whose office has no jurisdiction over elections fraud, has been indifferent to allegations of fraud or impropriety in the use of absentee ballots. 

Merrill’s spokesman, Gabe Rosenberg, said that is false: It was her office that asked the State Elections Enforcement Commission to investigate the 2019 mayoral primary in Bridgeport, where the incumbent, Joseph P. Ganim, lost at the polls and won on the strength of a lopsided absentee vote. That investigation is pending. 

Rosenberg questioned whether the Republicans are trying help local officials improve the accuracy of their voting lists — or score political points.

“What are they going to do with these tips? Are they going to make a political ad, or are they going to tell the appropriate officials about it?” Rosenberg said. 

In addition to the mail returned as undeliverable, there are instances of absentee ballot applications being delivered to the wrong homes, and that is what the GOP is hoping to hearing about through its tip line, Romano said.

The party has no plans to share the information with local officials, but it will be publicized, he said.

“I think the public needs to know,” he said.

Romano and Merrill each accused the other of fostering mistrust in the voting system.

Merrill said Romano is amplifying President Donald J. Trump’s unproven assertions that absentee voting or voting by mail promote fraud — a claim rejected by many Republican state election officials across the U.S.

“I’ve got news for you: The mistrust is already in the system,” Romano said.

Twenty-seven states allow no-excuse absentee voting, and some of the other 23 have criteria more lenient than Connecticut’s. Texas, for example, is among the states that allow anyone age 65 or older to vote by absentee.

The Connecticut Constitution says the General Assembly may provide by law the means to vote only in cases of “absence from the city or town of which they are inhabitants or because of sickness, or physical disability or because the tenets of their religion forbid secular activity.” 

The result is a system that does not provide legal access to an absentee ballot to anyone who will be working a double-shift, unless their employer is in another town. It also provides no access to someone uncomfortable about going to the polls in a bad flu season, unless they have a disability.

It is only because of a temporary executive order signed by Gov. Ned Lamont that all eligible voters can use absentee ballots in August to vote without going to the polls during the COVID pandemic. But the public health emergency he declared in March expires in September — and so do his emergency executive orders.

The General Assembly is expected to vote in special session later this month on a bill that would allow anyone to vote by absentee in November unless a COVID vaccine is developed by then.

Lamont said Thursday he supported Merrill’s mass mailing of applications for the August primary and favored a similar effort for November.

“It makes it easier for people to vote, and I think we can do that with real integrity,” Lamont said. “I think it makes a fair amount of sense, but I’m willing to listen to alternatives.”

Lamont, a Democrat who is not on the ballot this fall, said he does not understand the opposition to voting by absentee during a pandemic blamed for more than 4,300 deaths in Connecticut.

“If they don’t like our plan for absentee balloting, what are they saying? Line up and take your medicine?” Lamont said.

Correction: Based on inaccurate information provided to CT Mirror, this story as originally posted atttributed the return rate on election mail to the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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