Ending standoff with the state, Wallingford moves ballot drop boxes outside

Ending standoff with the state, Wallingford moves ballot drop boxes outside

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WALLINGFORD — Public Works crews installed two absentee ballot drop boxes outside Town Hall Monday, after a back-and-forth between the mayor and the state about drop box accessibility for next Tuesday’s primary election.

One drop box was installed near the front steps of Town Hall and the other by the carriage house, which is the brown brick building behind Town Hall on Prince Street.

That, however, wasn’t the original plan.

On Monday morning, one of the boxes was installed near the sliding glass doors on Town Hall’s Prince Street side, but the box was moved in the afternoon to the carriage house.

Town officials also changed a sign by the payments drop slot to include unambiguous language about how to cast an absentee ballot.

The old sign, on pink paper and taped to the window next to the payments drop slot, said that ballots left by absentee voters in the drop box, referring to the payments slot, would not be counted and that they must be given to the Town Clerk or put in the mail. There was no mention of the ballot drop box as a way to deliver completed ballots.

Deputy Secretary of the State Scott Bates stated his objections to this sign in a letter to Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. Monday, saying that the sign was “likely to confuse a voter into believing that the ballots they deposit in the secure drop box provided for that purpose will not be counted.”

The new sign, on orange paper in the same location, uses phrasing suggested in Bates’ letter that urges absentee voters not to use the payment slot to deliver ballots. It lists all three delivery methods and states the location of the drop boxes. The reference to not counting ballots is gone.

Town Clerk Barbara Thompson said that after Wednesday, voters should bring absentee ballots to a drop box or her office to avoid mail delays and ensure timely delivery to the Town Clerk.

Back and forth

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill's office took over the process of issuing absentee ballots from municipal clerks this year after an executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont made COVID-19 a valid reason for requesting an absentee ballot for the primary to protect the health of those wishing to avoid the polls.

Polling places are slated to remain open. Absentee ballots can be deposited in a drop box, mailed with a prepaid return envelope included with the ballot or delivered in person to the Town Clerk’s office.

The state delivered two ballot drop boxes to Wallingford in mid-July.

Dickinson said at the time he planned to keep the drop boxes inside Town Hall, citing security and vandalism concerns, despite the building’s exterior doors being locked due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Town Hall reopened to the public July 20 with rules for health and safety in place developed by the town health department. That same day, Deputy Secretary of the State Scott Bates sent Dickinson a letter instructing Dickinson to place at least one drop box outside and accessible to all voters at all times.

Dickinson responded to Bates two days later in a letter, asking the Secretary of the State to instruct all municipalities to put the ballot drop boxes outside if that is the requirement.

Bill passed

Last week, the state legislature passed a bill that Lamont signed into law Friday regarding absentee ballots reaffirming that the Secretary of the State’s office has power over the conduct of elections, which the secretary already had by state statute.

Lamont’s executive order 7QQ states that depositing an absentee ballot in a drop box counts as a way of returning the ballot to the municipal clerk "in accordance with instructions to be provided by the Secretary of the State.”

Bates’ letter to Dickinson Monday stated that since statutorily the Secretary of the State’s office has the power to issue instructions over election-related matters, which was reaffirmed in the new law and Lamont’s relevant executive order, he must comply with the instructions to move the drop boxes outside and change the sign.

The local Democratic Town Committee had planned a rally to support moving the ballot drop box outside Monday afternoon, but canceled the event when committee leaders learned the boxes had been moved.

“We are so grateful that the mayor has decided to comply and that we didn’t have to escalate the issue further,” Democratic Town Chairperson Alida Cella said in a statement Monday. “As so many people have yet to receive their absentee ballots and time was running short, this was quickly becoming a critical issue. We are happy and relieved that this is being taken care of.”

LTakores@record-journal.com203-317-2212Twitter: @LCTakores

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