This post has been updated.
Fears of violence and disruptions at polling places failed to materialize in Connecticut — and most of the nation — on Tuesday as residents went peacefully to the polls.
There were few if any reports of trouble at Connecticut polling places through a day of heavy but steady turnout. Some 70 percent of registered voters in Connecticut had cast ballots by Tuesday evening with hours remaining before the polls closed, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said at a 6 p.m. press conference.
About half of Connecticut’s registered voters had cast a ballot by noon Tuesday, thanks to heavy turnout early in the day and an unprecedented number of absentee ballots, she said.
About 636,000 of the state’s 2.3 million voters already had voted before the polls opened at 6 a.m. under the provisions of a temporary law that allows every voter to use an absentee ballot for the first time due to a suddenly resurgent COVID-19 pandemic. Nationally, a stunning 99.6 million votes had been cast, according to the U.S. Elections Project.
“We are hearing all across the state a really, really large turnout. And you’re seeing it right here,” Merrill said.
Merrill spoke to reporters midday outside a polling place at the Charter Oak International Academy, a public school in West Hartford. A line snaked out the door and around the parking lot.
“I can throw away all those speeches I used to give about the apathy of voters, because nobody is apathetic this year,” Merrill said.
Midday turnout update: including the ~25% of voters who voted by absentee ballot, almost 50% of registered voters have cast their ballots by noon! pic.twitter.com/laUBiBAH3g
— Denise Merrill (@SOTSMerrill) November 3, 2020
Pandemic worries influencing many voters
Even in the lull of the afternoon Tuesday, a steady stream of voters arrived at Avon High School in Avon to cast their ballots.
Mary Pellino, 57, said she chose to vote there in person “to feel like part of the process.”
“My health is OK, so I don’t have to worry,” she said. But almost immediately after casting her vote, she wished she had turned in an absentee ballot. The stress of the election backed up on her, she said.
“I do have to say I regret that decision because I would have liked to have gotten all of this over with and out of my consciousness,” she said.
Pellino voted for Biden – the first Democratic candidate she has ever supported in a presidential race. Most of her decision turned on the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which she called “criminal.”
“All of this pain with the pandemic, all of this divisiveness in the election, the lies and deceit and shame … I can only hope it’s a harbinger of change,” Pellino said. “Change only happens when the pain of not changing becomes unbearable. A whole lot more needs to get fixed besides who’s in the White House, but it’s a good place to start.”
Frances Witkowski, another Avon resident, said she showed up in person because she didn’t feel comfortable voting absentee.
“I don’t trust the absentee ballots,” she said. “There are too many ‘ifs, ands or buts’ about them.”
Witkowski declined to reveal who she was supporting for president, but said she looked for fresh faces when voting in the state races. Two terms is enough time for someone to serve in the General Assembly, she said.
After too many years in office, “they’re not looking out for the people anymore,” Witkowski said. “It should be two terms, and then out.”
Outside the West Woods Upper Elementary School in Farmington, Kelli Hebert showed up to vote for Biden. Given recent delays with the postal service, Hebert said she felt safer voting in person. “I wanted to make sure it was in and counted,” she said.
The pandemic, coupled with deep divisions under Trump, inspired her to vote for Biden.
“I’m just concerned with everything I’ve seen over the last four years,” Hebert said. “I don’t really like what’s happening within our society as far as how people talk to each other and treat each other. I see this as backwards momentum.”
Many voters mentioned the ongoing pandemic as one of the motivating factors behind their vote.
In Mansfield, Frank and Lucinda Vonduntz were thinking of their family as they cast their ballots.
“We haven’t seen our grandchildren since March, some of them,” said Lucinda. “It’s very hard to be so isolated.”
The couple said that they wanted to vote in person, despite coronavirus, because of the uncertainty created by President Donald Trump over counting absentee ballots.
“We risked it, and came here because we want our vote to be counted,” said Frank Vonduntz.
Also in Mansfield, Vicki Magley said she wants more focus on controlling the pandemic. Connecticut’s coronavirus positivity rate has risen steadily in the last month, and Gov. Ned Lamont has announced the state will roll back to Phase 2 of reopening at the end of this week. Meanwhile, several states around the nation continue to report record high numbers of both infections and hospitalizations.
“I’m voting because of the disbelief in science and also just the general mistreatment of people, that we can’t care for our needy and our elderly with COVID.” Magley said. “It’s ridiculous that we have such a disparity in income in such a wealthy country.”
In Fairfield, politics is local
Jackson Shostak, 19, voted Tuesday morning at Fairfield Woods. He said he voted in person because he wanted to be sure it counted and “I wanted to have somewhat of a normalized election year.”
Of the lack of Trump signs at Fairfield polling locations, he said local Republicans are more moderate than the president. He described Fairfield as “purple.”
“It could swing any way.”
Having Trump signs out, he suggested, “it would be a little bit more divisive and it could hinder support for the candidates.”
He said he was raised to understand politics as a local phenomenon, so he hopes Fairfield voters think along the same lines and don’t vote Democrat down ballot because they dislike the president. “I voted primarily because of local issues,” he said. He explained that he’s a student at American University right now but wants to move back home when he’s older and raise a family here. But he wants to see a stronger economy in Connecticut and more jobs.
Similarly he hopes “people will vote and think locally about the problems Connecticut is encountering.”
Too young to vote; not too young to help
Standing at the entrance of the gymnasium at Conte West Hills Middle School in New Haven, Clifford White greeted an elderly lady and guided her to a table to start the process of voting—something he himself is too young to do.
White, 16, said that he wanted to work at the polls today for many reasons. For one, he’s been acutely aware of the “racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia” in society, particularly from his perspective as a young Black man.
“I’ve realized how much politics affects our day-to-day lives — policies, our economy, our prisons and incarceration system, our racist institutions, many different facets,” he said.
A junior at Achievement First Amistad High School in New Haven, he said that as he has become more politically conscious over the years, he started volunteering for nonprofit organizations, joined the youth chapter of the NAACP, and recently attended protests like the ones for Breonna Taylor. Working at the polls was a natural next step in what he sees as a long future of political engagement.
“I felt that being here, being hands-on as best as possible, would better my chances of really understanding what it really means to be a democracy,” he added.
White is just one of many youths who, too young to vote themselves, are working at polls today out of personal investment and a zeal for civic action.
At the New Haven Free Public Library, Aleena Chaudry and Jailene Resto, both 16 and juniors at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, were manning the front and guiding voters since the polls opened at 6 a.m.
Chaundry said she signed up because she was excited to “see the election process happening,” preparing her for when she’s able to vote in two years. It felt especially important to work this year, she said.
“With everything going on, with the injustice happening and basic human rights being taken away not only here but all around the world, I wanted to learn more about the policies and politics behind everything,” she said.
Resto said that the political energy and conviction of her generation is motivated in part by the fact that they are more affected in the long term.
“A lot of adults don’t realize that they’re voting for something now, but in 20 years, that thing is probably not going to affect them,” Resto said. “It’ll affect us, that’s why we care so much about it.”
No crush of students this year
Merrill said the voting was going smoothly, with the exception of a ballot mix-up in New London, where the wrong House district was on the ballot.
Gov. Ned Lamont said public safety officials are monitoring social media for evidence of efforts to disrupt voting or stage protests of the results.
“It’s not going to happen in Connecticut,” Lamont said. “Connecticut is going to be careful. We’re going to respect the power of the vote and respect the decisions.”
Long lines but few problems were reported at polling places across the state.
At the New Haven Free Public Library polling location, most of the voters are Yale University students, with just a small residential area covered beyond the campus. More than half of Yale students are assigned to vote there. Ella Manning, the polling location’s moderator, said that it’s been a slow day with low turnout — probably because so few students are on campus and voting in person.
“It’s been quiet,” she said. “There’s not as many Yale students coming through as in the past.”
The other main polling location for Yale students, Wexler-Grant School, covers a much larger residential area. Moderator Jeannette Morrison, who is also an alder for Ward 22, said that any lack of student votes has been subsumed by the huge community voter turnout.
“Usually, in most elections, we get about 500 or 550 for the day,” she said. “By 12 o’clock, we already had over 500 people. That really says that people are taking this right that they have to vote very seriously.”
A steady stream of University of Connecticut students voted at the Mansfield Community Center through the morning, part of a turnout of more than 600 people who had arrived to the poll by around 10 a.m., moderators said.
In previous election years, students living on the Storrs campus had been shuttled to the polls in buses, and two years ago, the onslaught nearly overwhelmed the registrars because of a large number of same-day registrations. This year, with the number of on-campus students much smaller and a pandemic underway, students were arriving on their own.
Registrars were taking some same-day registrations there, but as of Tuesday morning, the numbers were not overwhelming.
Across the nation, few reports of trouble
Blue New England registered a few interesting presidential choices among its reigning non-blue governors. Gov. Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, indicated he left his presidential choice blank, for the second time in two elections. He’s not up for re-election this year.
Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, also a Republican and running for his third two-year term, told reporters he voted for Joe Biden.
No word on how the Republican governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, running for re-election, voted.
Elsewhere, National Guard troops have been activated around the country. A roundup by the New York Times says as many as half the states could have troops on standby today. In this region, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has placed 1,000 troops on standby. In New Jersey, national guard troops have been assisting election workers for several days already.
Multiple news organizations have reported suspicious robocalls over the last few weeks across the country, warning people to “stay safe and stay home.” In Flint, Mich., in an apparent effort to suppress the vote, robocalls told residents to vote on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a U.S. district court judge has ordered the U.S. Postal Service to sweep facilities in a group of districts – almost all of them in swing states and tightly contested races – for undelivered mail-in ballots. Among the areas is northern New England. Judge Emmet Sullivan, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ordered the process to be completed by 3 p.m. Those ballots are ordered to be delivered immediately.
AG Tong: Everyone’s vote will be counted
Connecticut officials pledged to deliver a safe voting experience at the polls, followed by a transparent and accurate count — albeit one that may not not be completed until Wednesday due to the large number of absentee ballots.
“Vote confidently. Everybody who wants to vote in this state will have the opportunity to cast their vote, and everybody who has cast their vote will have their vote counted,” Attorney General William Tong said. “We’re going to see to that.”
Lamont, a Democrat at the mid-point of his first term, campaigned over the weekend to reinforce a get-out-the-vote message aimed at exploiting Trump’s low-approval rating in the state, his dismal showing here in 2016, and a reluctance by Republicans to campaign for his reelection.
“I’m feeling pretty ramped up, amped up,” Lamont said. “I think we want to send a signal the last four years have been un-American, what’s going on in Washington. And I want a loud repudiation of that.”
Fellow Connecticut Democrats made about 23,000 phone calls and sent 300,000 text messages in the last two months, said spokeswomen Patty McQueen. Hundreds of volunteers also joined a “virtual phone bank” to call voters in swing states on behalf of the Biden-Harris ticket.
Republicans did the same thing; a party spokesman said the number of calls and texts would not be available until Wednesday.
Regardless, Republicans in the state say voters can repudiate the president without punishing the down-ballot ticket.
“I don’t see a blue tsunami coming our way,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who is not seeking re-election.
More new Democrats than Republicans
A record 2.3 million voters are eligible to vote in today’s election. New registrations have favored Democrats, who now outnumber Republicans in Connecticut, 850,046 to 480,026. The biggest bloc are the unaffiliated voters, 939,679.
Animus towards the president drove an unusually high turnout in the 2018 mid-term contests, helping Democrats here make their first legislative gains in a decade and leaving them confident about expanding their current majorities of 22-14 in the Senate and 91-60 in the House.
Security measures in place to prevent fraud
While Trump repeatedly has claimed baselessly that voting by absentee ballots is rife with fraud, election officials in Connecticut stress the security measures in place to ensure that no one casts an absentee ballot and then votes again at the polls. Only absentee ballots that arrive in today’s mail or are cast in drop boxes at a voter’s local town hall will be counted.
In Connecticut, absentee ballots are cast inside two envelopes. The outer one is marked with a bar code and the voter’s name and signature. The inner one contains the ballot and is meant to ensure the secrecy of the vote.
When a ballot is received at the local town clerk’s office prior to election day, it is scanned into a statewide voter system, and that person’s name is marked as having voted on a list used at the polls to check in voters.
Absentee ballots that arrive in the mail or are placed in secure drop boxes on election day are set aside until the polls close, when election officials confirm that those voters did not also vote at the polls.
“We’ll have a verification process at the end of the night to make sure. Every person gets one vote,” said Sue Larsen, the president of Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut.
The absentee ballots cast before election day can be counted beginning at 6 a.m. today. They are run through optical scanners, as is the case at the polls.
“We’ll go through until we’re finished,” Larsen said. “Some of the small towns may be able to be finished on election night. The … medium to larger towns and cities are probably going to do some of the counting on Wednesday.”
Communities have 96 hours to file their official results with Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.
Lawyers are standing by
To help resolve or monitor issues at the polls, the Connecticut Bar Association is arranging for 175 volunteer lawyers to serve as non-partisan designees of the secretary at the polls.
“We will objectively assess voting situations or inconsistencies brought to us by the Secretary of the State’s office, report back, and resolve issues promptly by communicating Secretary Merrill’s directives to the voting moderator,” said Amy Lin Meyerson, the CBA president.
Voters will be asked to wear a mask and observe social-distancing protocols at polling places, but curbside voting and other accommodations, such as providing them separate space, are available to voters who refuse to wear a mask or cannot wear one for medical reasons.
“The bottom line is no one will be allowed to endanger anyone else’s health,” Merrill said. “You have a constitutional right to vote. You don’t necessarily have a constitutional right to vote in a certain way.”
Election moderators can deny access to a voter who refuses to wear a mask and declines to cast a ballot curbside or in a separate space.
“We’ve gone over this issue over and over and over again. The people of this state, the people of this country have a constitutional right to vote,” Tong said. “But you do not have a constitutional right to endanger other people, and you don’t have a constitutional right to make other people sick.”
CT Mirror reporters Mark Pazniokas, Jenna Carlesso, Jan Spiegel, Isabella Zou, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas and Kelan Lyons contributed to this report. Reporting from Connecticut Public Radio is included in this story.