Outsourcing elections materials has its risks
If you received an absentee ballot application in September for the upcoming election, it may have come from New York. Mine was mailed by a private mail house, Fort Orange Press in Albany, NY.
For the August primary, the Connecticut Secretary of the State’s office contracted with a private mailing house to send out absentee ballot applications to all registered Democrats and Republicans, and then to send absentee ballots to those who returned applications.
The mailing house, Cathedral Corporation of Rhode Island, as reported in August, had difficulties in fulfilling the contract on time. All ballots were supposed to be mailed to voters who had requested them. Voters were supposed to receive ballots with enough time for the United States Postal Service to deliver the completed ballots to town halls across the state. They didn’t. Some absentee ballots were postmarked as late as July 31 for the August 11 election. In West Hartford, I received my absentee ballot in the mail on August 1, and the ballot came from Rome, NY.
While Cathedral Corporation was described as a Rhode Island company, its headquarters are in Rome, NY where my ballot originated. It’s concerning when your ballot comes from somewhere you didn’t expect. Outsourcing distribution of absentee ballots to a private company brings troubling questions of transparency around a process central to our democracy.
In addition to the late mailing of absentee ballots, Cathedral Corporation failed to mail more than 20,000 primary election ballots to Connecticut voters. Town clerks across the state were informed on August 3 of ballots that still needed to be sent out to voters. With slowdowns in the mail this summer, the USPS recommends mailing ballots at least two weeks before election day, to ensure their safe arrival. Due to the Secretary of the State and Cathedral Corporation’s failure to mail 20,000 ballots, ballots were ultimately sent to voters an alarming seven or eight days before Election Day.
Unfortunately, in August, a week before the primary election, Tropical Storm Isais hit the state, leaving many without power for days. As a result of the storm, Gov. Ned Lamont issued a two-day extension for absentee ballots to arrive through the mail and be counted.
As a result of the poor performance with the August primary and the greater number and complexity of ballots for the November Presidential Election, the Secretary of the State mailed absentee ballot applications using another New York-based private mail house. Unlike the August primary, the Secretary of the State has not contracted with a mail house for mailing absentee ballots to voters. Instead, Town clerks are responsible for processing absentee ballot applications and sending out absentee ballots with the accompanying instructions and envelopes.
But town clerks’ offices are not mail houses. Town clerks across the state are looking for volunteers or for other town departments to lend staff. They started mailing out absentee ballots on October 2, and town clerks will be continuously sending out absentee ballots as applications for absentee ballots come into their offices from the USPS or the secure ballot drop boxes.
Outsourcing public services to the private sector is championed by those who believe the free market is more efficient than government bureaucracy. Efficiency, however, is an ever-changing concept in public policy.
It is easily presumed that a mail house that specializes in sending out mail is faster and more accurate in its mailings. Thus, governments routinely outsource mail services to the private sector. In actuality, leading up to the August primary, Cathedral Corporation missed deadlines, forcing town governments to correct the private mail house’s mistakes.
Was it efficient for a private contractor to send out ballots less than two weeks before an election? No.
Was it efficient for town clerks to be informed of voters waiting for absentee ballots eight days before an election? No.
Was it efficient for town clerks to find volunteers during a pandemic to stuff envelopes? No.
We’re in the last few days of mass absentee voting in Connecticut. This is only Connecticut’s second election where all voters can vote absentee with the excuse of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unknown how long the coronavirus pandemic will last, and how many elections will have the COVID-19 reason for absentee ballots. What we do know is that tight time frames and out-of- state contractors have not served Connecticut voters well. The partial privatization of the November election process looks more promising than results from the August primary would suggest, at the expense of hours and hours of labor by our town clerks.
No Connecticut voter should be disenfranchised because of delays and complications caused by outsourcing. To prevent further delays, return your absentee ballot application or absentee ballot today. I recommend using your town’s ballot drop box and thanking your town clerk and registrars after the election.
Elizabeth Rousseau is a junior, 1823 Scholar at Trinity College majoring in Economics and Public Policy & Law. She lives in West Hartford.
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