WALLINGFORD — The Secretary of the State’s office began mailing out hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots Monday for the upcoming primary election, nearly a week later than town officials anticipated.
State statute says absentee ballots are supposed to be issued beginning 21 days before a primary election. This year’s presidential primary is on Aug. 11, so that date was July 21.
“We’re getting people calling in upset and angry because they didn’t get their ballots,” Town Clerk Barbara Thompson said Wednesday. “The Secretary of the State’s office has not handled this mass mailing well, and has mailed these ballots out six days later than she statutorily should have, and now limits the voter on their time frame to get it back to the clerk.”
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s office took over the process of issuing absentee ballots from municipal clerks this year. An executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont made COVID-19 concerns a valid reason for requesting an absentee ballot for the primary to protect the health of those wishing to avoid the polls.
Thompson said it upset her and her staff to hear complaints from voters.
“We’ve always done the job well and diligently," Thompson said, “and (Merrill) should have left it up to the clerks to take over and do their jobs the way they’re meant to do it.”
Gabe Rosenberg, spokesperson for the secretary, cautioned against “pushing a panic button.” Merrill’s office sent an absentee ballot application to every eligible voter for the upcoming primary.
Rosenberg said that because this was the first time the state has done this, applications were sent out out “fairly early” so that people would have a chance to mail the applications in and leave enough time for municipal clerks to process them.
“The unintended consequence is that there’s a lot of voters who sent their absentee ballot application in a long time ago,” he said, adding that the state took a couple of extra days to make sure every ballot was going to the right place.
There are about 40 different ballot styles based on the individual towns that have primaries for state and local offices, he said, and a person getting the wrong ballot would “diminish faith in the process.”
“Everyone should be getting their ballot with ample time to return it,” he said.
Buckets of applications
As of Thursday, the Secretary of State has received more than 250,000 absentee ballot applications.
In Wallingford, about 3,500 voters have applied for absentee ballots, seven times the number of applications than in past presidential primary elections.
Thompson said the increase in absentee ballot use created so much extra work for her staff, including an additional part-time employee, that they stopped work on everything else for a time and only worked on getting through the scanning and verification process.
Her office currently receives 80 to 100 absentee ballot applications a day, but initially was receiving “a bucket of 1,000,” Thompson said.
“That was the first two days,” she said, “then it was a bucket of 500 on the third day, and then it kind of slowed down.”
Voters can fill out and return absentee ballots by using a prepaid return envelope included with the ballot or delivering it to a secure ballot drop box. Wallingford’s two drop boxes currently are located inside Town Hall, but a directive from the state may force the town to move at least one drop box outside.
Thompson said that after Aug. 7, voters should bring absentee ballots to a drop box or the Town Clerk’s office to avoid mail delays and ensure timely delivery to the Town Clerk.
Ballots not delivered to the Town Clerk’s office by 8 p.m. on Aug. 11 are not counted. A postmark on Aug. 11 or before doesn’t make a difference.
Late ballots get scanned into the system, but voided and coded as received late.
Wallingford has about 26,000 eligible voters and Thompson said she anticipates “at least half” may look to vote absentee in November. The state legislature recently approved the expanded absentee ballot use for the general election.
In past presidential elections, about 900 to 1,000 voters have applied for absentee ballots.
“We’ll just shut down the other functions and just do absentee balloting,” she said.
Changes to process
On Thursday, Merrill’s office issued directions to municipal clerks and registrars of voters outlining changes to the processing of absentee ballots. Rosenberg said they were waiting for the new absentee voting law to pass in the legislature, which it did Wednesday, before sending out the instructions.
The two big changes to the way absentee ballots are to be handled and processed this year are the use of a mail house and a redesign of both the inner and outer envelopes.
The mail house is a longtime state contractor that sends mass mailings, Rosenberg said. There are facilities in Rhode Island and New York that print and sort ballots into envelopes and then give then to the post office for delivery.
The last drop to the mail house is slated for Aug. 3. After that, any absentee ballot request must be fulfilled locally by the municipal clerk.
Modifications to the outer envelope include a window for a mailing address to show through from the inner envelope and indicators that make it clearer to mail handlers that it’s an election mailing to be expedited.
The serial number bar code, readable by both an electronic device and a person, was moved from the outer envelope to the inner envelope, along with other voter identifying information.
Upon receipt of an absentee ballot, the Town Clerk now is supposed to open the outer envelope and scan the serial number bar code of the inner envelope, which will remain sealed and retained in a secure location.
Polling places are slated to remain open for the primary election. If a person hasn’t received an absentee ballot who applied for one, the voter can visit the municipal clerk’s office and request a new ballot, voiding the old one.