Voting by mail is a much more popular option this year due to the coronavirus. A special legislative session this week could take up a bill that would give local officials a head start on preparing absentee ballots for counting.
Along with the expected increase in the volume of absentee ballots, actually opening the ballots could cause a big delay in counting. Absentee ballots have two envelopes, the inner -- where your vote goes -- and the outer, which keeps the whole ballot secure. The inner envelopes will be opened by registrars, who will count the votes inside on Election Day, Nov. 3 -- that won’t change.
But the bill being considered by the legislature would allow municipal clerks -- the officials responsible for handling absentee ballots -- to open the outer envelopes a few days earlier.
Gov. Ned Lamont has expressed support for the bill, saying it will give registrars flexibility and time to ensure they’re accurately counting ballots.
Clerks are record-keepers for their municipalities: They have to mark the ballots as received before handing them over to the registrars. The head start would allow clerks to start marking up official voter lists with a red “A” indicating an absentee ballot. Those lists will then go to polls on the morning of Election Day so that voters who’ve already submitted an absentee ballot won’t vote twice.
Sue Larsen, the registrar of voters in South Windsor, said the bill will help larger cities and towns with more absentee ballots. “This bill does give us flexibility on being able to open the outer envelope,” said Larsen, who also is president of the Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut. She said the bill won’t mandate that clerks start early, but it will allow those who want to get a jump on opening envelopes to do so before Election Day.
Larsen said there is a lot of double checking “to make sure the A’s correspond to the actual outer envelope.” That process is necessary, Larsen said, to have documentation that “the town clerk has seen it, recorded it, it’s an A on the official voter list.”
Requests for absentee ballots for this November have skyrocketed. Stamford and West Hartford have each seen over 10,000 applications for absentee ballots. And for them, just getting the ballots to the registrars could take days.
The absentee ballot system is built to handle about 3% to 5% of the vote total, according to municipal clerks who manage a small number most years.
Those ballots usually are opened on the morning of Election Day. The bill would allow local officials to start opening the outer envelopes and checking votes into the system at 5 p.m. on Oct. 30, the Friday before Election Day.
And that moves the clock on a few other issues the bill addresses. Those who have voted but have changed their mind have until Friday, Oct. 30, at 5 p.m. to rescind their absentee ballot.
The bill also would allow registrars to make a “reasonable effort” to contact electors who have made a mistake on their ballots. Larsen said there’s more room for error on an absentee ballot. A voter could forget a signature or the date, vote in the same category twice or misread the instructions, she said. With clerks opening the outer envelope sooner, they can check to see if the inner envelope is signed, “thus allowing the registrars to make an effort to contact electors as best they can to let them know ... they didn’t sign it. We have to reject if it isn’t signed.”
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano said Monday the text of this and other bills needs to be available to the public. “The bills should go through the normal process of the bills of allowing the public to really see the language,” Fasano said, “and for the minority ranking members to weigh in and have a say so that these bills can be made better.”
Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Ali covers the Naugatuck River Valley for Connecticut Public Radio. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @ahleeoh.