This story is part of CT Mirror Explains, an ongoing effort to distill our wide-ranging reporting into a "what you need to know" format and provide practical information to our readers.
Connecticut residents who cannot vote in person on Election Day for certain qualifying reasons can instead vote using an absentee ballot.
The United States has employed absentee voting for decades, but the practice has recently come into the spotlight in Connecticut thanks to allegations of voter fraud in Bridgeport’s Democratic primary election.
Here’s what to know about absentee voting in Connecticut.
How does absentee voting work in Connecticut?
Connecticut residents can vote absentee if on Election Day they are actively serving in the military, will be out of town, cannot vote in person due to sickness or a physical disability, will be serving as an election official at a polling place other than their own, or cannot perform secular activities due to religious beliefs.
To vote absentee, registered voters must fill out an application form to request an absentee ballot. The ballot will be mailed to them, and after filling it out, the voter — or a “designee” — can return the ballot by mail, drop it off at their town clerk’s office, or put it in their town’s ballot drop box.
Why is absentee voting in the news right now?
After Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim defeated challenger John Gomes in the city’s Democratic primary election on Sept. 12, Gomes’ campaign released footage of a woman dropping stacks of papers into an absentee ballot box outside the government center in Bridgeport.
Gomes’ campaign alleged the woman in the video is Ganim supporter Wanda Geter-Pataky and that she was dropping off stacks of absentee ballots ahead of the primary. The Connecticut Mirror could not independently confirm the identity of the woman shown in the video.
It is a state felony to be in the possession of somebody else’s ballot or to deliver that ballot, unless you are a “designee” for that person. Only a person’s caregiver or family member — or, if no one is available, a police officer or registrar of voters in the voter’s town — can serve as a “designee.”
The State Elections Enforcement Commission has voted to open a sprawling investigation and subpoena all absentee ballots cast. The commission said it received at least four complaints from citizens and two referrals from the Bridgeport Police Department regarding possible misuse of absentee ballots, including their distribution at senior housing complexes.
Where can candidates, campaigns and volunteers be involved in the absentee ballot process?
Candidates, their campaign staff and other volunteers can distribute absentee ballot applications ahead of an election (though they can’t be paid solely for doing so).
Operatives can distribute applications by mailing unsolicited applications to voters with clear statements about who is eligible to vote absentee, or they can distribute them door-to-door, as many people do in local elections.
Anyone who requests more than five applications for an absentee ballot from the town clerk’s office is required to sign their name attesting that they received the applications, which are numbered for record keeping purposes. Those individuals are then required to report back to the town clerk to alert the office which voters received the numbered applications.
The campaigns can also help people to fill out their applications, but if they do, the person assisting the voter is required to sign the application, as well.
Where can’t campaigns and their operatives be involved?
Though state law allows campaigns and their operatives to follow up with potential voters to make sure they filled out and submitted their absentee ballot applications, the Secretary of the State’s website emphasizes that campaign workers and volunteers are not allowed to assist voters in filling out their actual ballot.
State law even prohibits candidates and campaign workers from being present when a voter is marking down their choices on the ballot.
What are the potential punishments for violators of absentee ballot law?
If the State Elections Enforcement Commission finds a violation, it can impose a civil penalty of up to $2,000 per offense. Additionally, violating absentee ballot law is a class D felony, which is punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.
What are lawmakers considering post-Bridgeport video?
The state legislature spent most of a special session on Tuesday in partisan wrangling over how to reform election law in light of the Bridgeport situation.
Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for a bill that authorizes and funds an elections monitor for Bridgeport, but the Democratic majorities rebuffed Republican efforts to immediately make permanent changes to elections law, including mandatory prison time for election fraud.
Democrats also rejected Republican proposals to ban drop boxes. Republicans insisted the drop boxes made fraud easier, though if someone had fraudulently obtained absentee ballots, they still could have deposited them in the U.S. mail.
How did absentee voting change during COVID?
In July 2020, the Connecticut General Assembly approved no-excuse absentee ballot voting — meaning all registered voters could vote absentee — for that year’s elections. The move temporarily expanded the definition of “sickness” in state voting law to cover concern over contracting COVID, and it remained in place during the 2021 elections.
Additionally, in 2020 the Secretary of the State’s office provided drop boxes outside of every town hall for voters to drop off their absentee ballots. The drop boxes are still in use.
Will Connecticut allow no-excuse absentee voting again?
In 2024, Connecticut will ask voters by referendum to authorize no-excuse absentee voting. Since the change would require a constitutional amendment, voters must first give legislators discretion over absentee balloting (which would be accomplished through the referendum) before they can make any changes to the system.