OPINION: Hometown heroes of the electoral process

OPINION: Hometown heroes of the electoral process

Remember the old Abbott & Costello comedy routine? Who’s on first, What’s on second, I don’t know’s on third? It draws exasperating laughter every time one watches, except if you are one of Connecticut’s 169 Town Clerks who are fielding questions about voting in the upcoming presidential election. They are living this routine on a daily basis.

Last March, the Connecticut Senate voted 35-1 for passage of legislation allowing no-excuse absentee ballot voting as a public health precaution during the August primaries and the presidential election this November. The legislation signed by Gov. Ned Lamont gives every voter the ability to vote by absentee ballot during the current COVID crisis. Soon all eligible voters will receive an application for an absentee ballot from the Secretary of State’s Office. We received ours last week.

At Wallingford’s Town Hall, Town Clerk Barbara Thompson answers calls patiently and tries to assure voters that their votes will be counted. Once the town clerk and her staff processes an application, an absentee ballot will be mailed. You can complete your ballot and return it by mail or in person, or drop your ballot at those special boxes that are bolted to the ground in front of Town Hall. Another drop box has been recently added at the Wallingford Senior Center.

Thompson admits that last minute changes from the Secretary of State’s Office have made it difficult to follow guidelines which seem to be changing every day. “I can’t but help feel that clerks’ offices throughout the State are being set up for failure,” she says ruefully. Despite fears that ballots will not be returned in time to be counted,Thompson  says, “Your vote will be counted 15 days prior if you return by USPS, otherwise please use the drop boxes, all ballots will be counted!”

 Across the street from Town Hall, I buy a book of stamps at the Post Office and linger at the counter to chat with R., a 35-year veteran of the Postal Service. I want the real scoop on the postal “reorganization” drama roiling the nation. Thankfully, there’s no drama at the Wallingford P.O. “It’s business as usual,” says R. “We’re old school here, every piece of mail leaves this office every day; nothing’s left on the floor.”

R. doesn’t put much stock in Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s plans to overhaul the agency with cost-cutting measures and curtailed services. Some of the efficiency recommendations include keeping mail on the workroom floor if the mail-processing runs late; eliminating late mail deliveries and overtime pay; and removal of hundreds of mail-sorting machines.

Such recommended changes are distressing for R., who says, “I’d hate to see the post office privatized and have to report to stakeholders and shareholders. We are first and foremost, a service to the public.” “And,” he notes, “we are self-funded.” The P.O. receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies wholly on the sale of postage (my book of stamps), products, and services.

Some fear postal reforms, if enacted, may delay mail-in voting, which is known to be more popular with Democrats than Republicans. A recent Pew Research Center poll on voter engagement indicates that most registered voters who support President Trump or lean toward supporting him would rather vote in person in the presidential election (80%); only 17% prefer to vote by mail. By contrast, a majority of voters who support or favor Former Vice President Joe Biden say their preference is to vote by mail in the upcoming election (58%).

In this crucial election year with the pandemic looming large, we can expect an unprecedented increase in vote-by-mail ballots. Amy Gibbs, Strategic Communications Specialist for the USPS, gives this assurance: “In Wallingford, across Connecticut and nationally, the Postal Service is committed to delivering Election Mail in a timely manner.” She adds, “ To put it in context, the Postal Service delivers 433 million pieces of mail a day. Even if all Americans were to vote by mail this year, 330 million ballots over the course of the election would be only three-quarters of what the Postal Service delivers in one single day.” The Postal Service has more than enough capacity, says Gibbs, to handle all election mail this year, which is predicted to amount to less than 2% of total mail volume from mid-September to Election Day.

Amid all the political campaigning and grandstanding, Town Clerks and Postal Clerks will labor tirelessly to safeguard the electoral process this November.I’m counting on R., who says confidently, “We can handle what we do. We survived the anthrax scare; we’ll survive Coronavirus.” 

Lorraine S. Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.

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