Lyda Ruijter is living in a world of envelopes. She’s the town clerk in Stamford, and she wants voters to know how important those envelopes are to their absentee ballots.
“Many people think of the absentee balloting process: ‘It's just an envelope and you put a stamp on it and then you put the ballot in it.’ But the tracking is the hard part and the complex part.”
The absentee ballot process was built to identify and securely transfer 3% to 5% of the total votes cast. But this year, the process is handling much more. This summer, two out of every three votes cast in the August primary was by absentee. Election officials expect a lot of absentee voters this fall but fewer than in the summer. Municipal clerks are shouldering much of the weight: Many offices have gotten 10 times the absentee ballot requests compared to pre-COVID times, and for each ballot, a rigorous tracking process ensures that vote is secure.
When a voter goes to the polls, they’re handed a ballot. That person’s identity as a registered voter is verified by a list on their way in. But it only takes one piece of paper, that ballot, to cast a vote.
Absentee ballots require a few more. First, voters need to apply for an absentee ballot and send that application as a physical piece of paper. And then their ballot is mailed to them along with a return mailing envelope and a ballot envelope. The vote itself is anonymous. The envelope is not, and it holds voter identification. That envelope is what keeps the system secure.
During a visit to the vault, Ruijter shrugged at a box of ballots from the August primary sitting in a pile.
“It’s the envelope that tracks you as a voter in which that ballot is situated,” she said. “That’s the envelope with a serial number and a tracking number. That’s what’s the most important part.”
Tim De Carlo will be opening some of those envelopes on election night. He’s the Republican registrar of voters for Waterbury. He’ll only get them once the municipal clerk has verified the identity of each envelope and ensured that it’s signed.
“Once we take possession of them, we have to open the outer envelope, remove the B envelope -- which is the signed envelope -- and then eventually go back and separate the B envelope and take the ballot itself out,” De Carlo said. “The reason being is so we don’t see how you voted. Once that last envelope is opened, we can then place it through a tabulator.”
Absentee voting at this scale hasn’t been flawless. For the August primary, the secretary of the state’s office used a mailhouse to send applications and then later the actual ballot to voters. That made things easier for local election officials. But there were problems and many voters reported never receiving their ballots.
This time, clerks have to mail all the ballots.
“The fulfillment portion is the harder part,” said Chanta Graham, assistant town clerk in Stamford. “So now we’re physically having to mail all the ballots out versus having a mailhouse to do that.”
In a statement, the secretary of the state’s office said the duty fell to clerks in the general election because it wasn’t possible to find an outside vendor who could handle 500 different ballot types across the state. To help, the state says it made almost $10 million available to local election officials.
With that money, clerks like Ruijter have spent the fall getting their offices up to speed. She expects somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 applications for an absentee ballot.
Ballots were first mailed out Oct. 2 and will continue to be prepared up until the election. Those who wish to vote by absentee or want a backup plan in case they don’t feel comfortable voting in person can still apply for one.
From there, timing is in the hands of voters, who love to wait to the last minute.
“There is something in the psychology of voters that they love to drop off that AB ballot last-minute,” Ruijter said.
By law, voters have until 8 p.m. on election night to deliver their votes to the secure ballot boxes placed outside every town hall. And voters who choose to use the mail should ensure ballots have ample time to arrive before the polls close.
But as town clerks across the state would say, the earlier you can get that ballot back to them, the better.
Information on how to vote by absentee ballot is available on the secretary of the state’s website. And here’s a video of Denise Merrill answering questions about absentee voting:
Your town or city clerk manages records for residents, including absentee ballots. If you have questions about your application, ballot or the process, you can call your municipal clerk.
Your municipality has a Democratic registrar of voters and a Republican registrar of voters. Some towns may have a registrar from another party, and they all work together to keep an active list of all registered voters. If you have questions about registration, you can call your registrar.
If you have questions about your registration status, start by checking your registration status online.
If you aren’t registered and want to be, you can register here. If you do it online, you will need to print your form and mail it to your local registrar at some point.
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 email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @ahleeoh.