WALLINGFORD — Last week, the state changed the way the remaining absentee ballots for Tuesday’s primary will be delivered to voters, from using a centralized mail house to relying on town clerks.
There are 306 local voters, a mix of Republicans and Democrats, that will need to have their ballot issued by the Town Clerk. About 3,600 Wallingford voters requested absentee ballots.
It was always the plan to switch the mailing of absentee ballots from a mail house—which prints and sorts ballots into envelopes and then gives them to the post office for delivery— to the town clerks as the day of the primary drew closer, according to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill's office.
Town Clerk Barbara Thompson, however, said she felt blindsided “every step of the way” by the way the state’s plan unfolded.
“Every morning I came in to a new email with a new ‘issue’ (or) problem from SOTS for us to solve,” she said in a statement Tuesday.
Thompson said that she believed town clerks were told that Merrill's office would mail all of the ballots.
The Secretary’s office issued instructions on the process to town clerks in early June in the document “Absentee Ballot Road Map During COVID-19” which indicated, though didn’t explicitly state, that town clerks would be doing some of the mailing.
The document states that the Secretary’s office recommended ordering enough absentee ballots for 80 percent of eligible voters, both Democrats and Republicans, and of that amount, sending 20 percent to the clerk’s office and 80 percent to the mail house.
The document further states that any absentee ballot applications received on or after July 21 would be “the responsibility of the town clerk to mail the ballot directly to the voter.”
Gabe Rosenberg, Secretary’s office spokesperson, said those two instructions, plus the guidance that came out after, was more than enough to clue in town clerks to the fact that they would be doing some of the mailing of absentee ballots.
On July 29, town clerks were issued updated absentee ballot processing guidance, which stated that the last data drop to the mail house would be on Monday and that any absentee ballot request after that would need to be issued by the local town clerk.
Thompson said that the Connecticut Town Clerks Association “did not trust this” and to be safe, the organization advised town clerks to start issuing all ballots as of Friday morning.
Indeed, SOTS stopped the process on Friday instead of Monday, three days earlier than anticipated.
“This has been a nightmare mess from the start, and very disappointing,” Thompson said. “I am very worried about what will happen in October.”
The mail house mailed approximately 267,000 ballots statewide. That leaves about 20,000 absentee ballots statewide, or roughly 7.5 percent, to be mailed by town clerks.
According to the “Absentee Ballot Road Map 2020” document issued to town clerks in early June, clerks were instructed to retain 20 percent of the absentee ballots they ordered for their own use in office.
There are about 40 different ballot designs based on the individual towns that have primaries for state and local offices.
The presidential-only ballots are the most common, so a very limited number of people get the other designs, Rosenberg said.
It would have been inefficient for a large mail house to handle the smaller numbers of ballots after the initial rush was over, he said.
“The switch was made late last week because the mail house had already processed and mailed more than a quarter of a million absentee ballots and the remaining numbers by ballot design were too small to be done by them efficiently,” Rosenberg said.
“It is important to note that our office is committed to providing the town clerks with whatever resources they need, including paying for additional staff, out of the federal CARES Act funds,” he added.
Thompson recommends that voters bring absentee ballots to a drop box or the Town Clerk's office to avoid mail delays and ensure timely delivery.
Local drop boxes are located outside in the front and rear of Town Hall.