Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, won her first Democratic primary by 82 votes in 2014 and her second two years later by 1,143. On Tuesday, she was fretting over the fact that at least 1,100 Democrats who applied for an absentee ballot in her district have yet to receive one.
Moore is one of them.
“I didn’t get my ballot yet, but my son did,” said Moore, one of the unprecedented number of voters to send in absentee ballot applications in 2020. “I mailed mine before he did.”
Connecticut, a state with no significant history of voting by mail, has temporarily loosened its restrictive absentee ballot rules for the Aug. 11 primary and Nov. 3 general election, a measure designed to allow voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With voters complaining of unexplained delays in receiving their ballots from a bulk mail company hired by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s office, candidates have been hearing from anxious supporters: Will they get their ballots in time?
“It’s not about me. It’s about all those people who are frustrated they won’t have their ballot in time to vote,” Moore said. “I have already received a lot of text messages and Facebook posts saying, ‘I haven’t received my ballot.’ “
About 300,000 ballots have gone out in three major batches of mailings, and the last of those ballots should have been received in the mail Tuesday, Merrill said.
But about 20,000 applications now must be handled by local town clerks, which means mailing out ballots and hoping that voters mail them back in time for them to be counted. Voters can also place them in drop boxes at town halls.
“I’m afraid some people won’t get their ballot in,” said Rep. Bobby Gibson, D-Bloomfield, whose House district is one of 11 with primaries for Democratic or Republican nominations. “I wish there was a way we could extend the deadline for the ballots to be received.”
The secretary of the state’s office and the president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association disagree about whether the scramble to handle those last 20,000 applications is evidence of inattention to deadlines, either by the clerks or by Merrill’s office, or simply the challenges of undertaking a massive vote-by-mail effort.
The clerks says they were caught by surprise. Merril’s office says they were warned.
“Our LAST data drop to the mail house will be at NOON on August 3, 2020. Thereafter, any absentee ballot request received from any source will be fulfilled by the town clerk locally,” Merrill’s office had told the clerks in writing.
But Anna Posniak, the president of the clerks’ association, sent an alert Monday warning her members that the 20,000 applications that they now had to handle were the result of a failure by Merrill’s office.
“It was brought to my attention this afternoon that Secretary of the State’s office did not send absentee ballot exports for last week to mail house,” she wrote. The secretary of the state’s office provided her with a spreadsheet identifying the voters who had applied for a ballot but would not get one from the mail house, she said.
“The Excel spreadsheet contains over 20,000 ballots statewide that were not sent out by SOTS. You will need to isolate the voters from your town. You MUST resend each voter on the Excel spreadsheet an absentee ballot immediately,” Posniak wrote.
She also warned of “poor quality control” at the mail house that resulted in some envelopes being improperly sealed, potentially allowing the ballot to slip out.
Posniak did not return calls for comment Tuesday.
Republicans say Merrill’s office has bungled the primary, a mix of do-or-die legislative primaries and two presidential contests that are going forward even though the Donald J. Trump and Joe Biden long ago clinched the Republican and Democratic nominations.
Republicans have primaries for the nominations in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts, plus one state Senate and three state House districts, none involving incumbents. Democrats have two state Senate and eight state House primaries, five involving challenges to incumbents.
“I’m livid,” said Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, the deputy House minority leader. He says Merrill’s incompetence will feed concerns about the reliability and integrity of voting by absentee ballot.
Candelora, Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, and others complain that Merrill’s office was inattentive to the timeline required for a major vote-by-mail effort and failed to adequately communicate to town clerks and voters.
Fasano said a clerk in Durham emailed him Tuesday about a voter getting an envelope in the mail with no ballot. Moore said her son’s ballot came in a partially opened envelope.
“She doesn’t want to admit she made a mistake,” Fasano said of Merrill.
“To me, there is no self-reflection in fixing what went wrong. I feel like there is a massive coverup — ‘nothing to see here,’” Candelora said.
Merrill says much of the GOP criticism is disingenuous, as it comes from a party that generally has been an obstacle to allowing the no-excuse use of absentee ballots as a means to vote by mail or vote early in person by dropping off the ballots at town clerks’ offices. If anyone is undermining faith in the system, she said, it is the GOP.
President Donald J. Trump regularly suggests that the efforts in Connecticut and many other states to let people vote by mail during the pandemic is an invitation to fraud.
Nearly every Republican lawmaker in Connecticut, however, joined Democrats in voting in special session two weeks ago for a bill permitting every voter to use an absentee ballot in November, reflecting polling that shows support for absentee voting during the pandemic. An executive ordered by Gov. Ned Lamont permits the same thing in the primary.
“The Republicans are continuing to criticize every effort we are making on all levels. I don’t know why all of a sudden they are changing their tune,” Merrill said, referring to the support for temporarily liberalizing the use of absentee ballots. “It’s probably that their constituents want to be able to vote remotely in this situation.”
But there are unhappy Democrats, as well, though they say they are grateful to Merrill for pushing to ease the use of absentee ballots during the pandemic.
“I want to talk about how to solve the problem, not lay blame,” Moore said.
Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford, who faces a primary next week and is aware of 152 Democrats awaiting a ballot, said he will be talking to Merrill about publicizing what voters can do if they do not receive an absentee ballot. (One option is they still can go to the polls.)
Merrill mailed an absentee ballot application for the primary to 1.2 million registered Democrats and Republicans. About 100,000 were returned as undeliverable. More than 300,000 voters used them to apply for an absentee ballot.
Local officials validated each application in a statewide voter system, and the secretary of the state’s office used the system to have a commercial mail house send out the actual ballots, beginning July 21.
Normally, a town clerk must send out a ballot within 24 hours of receiving an application. Correctly anticipating a heavy volume in response to the mass mailing of applications, the secretary of the state’s office took over the mailing, which required a longer time line.
Gabe Rosenberg, the spokesman for Merrill, said the office did not make clear that the ballots would not come quickly.
“One of the things we learned in this process is that there needs to be more explanation,” he said.
The closure of city and town halls due to the pandemic has complicated the process. Before COVID, someone could go to their local town hall, fill out an application, get a ballot and cast that ballot. There is no deadline for seeking an absentee ballot.
To accommodate voters who may get their ballot late or feel nervous about using the mail, the secretary of the state’s office provided secure drop boxes that have been placed outside every town hall. Some Republicans objected to the drop boxes, questioning if they were secure.
Ballots must arrive in the mail no later than election day to be counted. Any ballot dropped in one of the boxes will be counted, so long as it arrives by 8 p.m., the closing time of the polls.
“The drop boxes are going to be the savior for the primary,” said Sue Larsen, the Democratic registrar of voters in South Windsor and the leader of ROVAC, the Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut. “I don’t now what we would have done without them.”