HARTFORD — On Thursday, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill that would make it possible for absentee ballots to be processed on the Friday before election day.
The bill passed the House on Wednesday 139-5 and the Senate on Thursday 35-1.
In July, the legislature passed a measure allowing any voter to use COVID-19 as a reason for voting by absentee ballot, a change that could substantially increase the number of absentee ballots that municipalities receive.
State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, the chair of the Government Administration and Election Committee, said the purpose of the bill was to ensure that ballot counting goes smoothly, without “a crush of absentee ballots” overwhelming town clerks and registrars of voters.
According to state voting regulations, when an absentee ballot is received, the town clerk is responsible for entering the serial number into the voter registry system. Ballots are then stored in a vault until election day.
On election day, the ballots are hand-delivered either to the polling place or to an agreed-upon central location, where the registrars open the envelopes and feed them into tabulators to be counted.
The new legislation allows town clerks to sort absentee ballots into voting districts beginning two weeks before election day. It also allows town clerks to deliver the ballots to the registrar of voters at a central location as early as the Friday before election day, rather than on the election day itself. The registrar of voters can then begin removing the outer envelope and tallying the number of absentee ballots received.
The registrar of voters is still not permitted to tally the votes until election day.
The bill also provides for an election monitor for any municipality of 140,000 people in order to “detect and prevent irregularity and impropriety in the management of election administration procedures.”
According to Flexer, this provision came at the request of the bi-cameral delegation of the city of Bridgeport, and would apply only to that city.
State Rep. Daniel Fox, D-Stamford, a member of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, who presented the bill in the House, said that the necessary funding for the election monitor would come from the Absentee Ballot Support Grant included in the federal CARES Act funding, and would not affect the budgets of the municipalities.
State Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, told CT Examiner that he was concerned that having a delay in election results would be “playing into Trump’s narrative” about absentee ballots being unreliable or an opportunity for fraudulent voting. He said that by starting the counting early, they would be able to produce the election results more quickly, thereby giving voters more confidence that the outcome was legitimate.
Looney said that by enacting the measure through legislation rather than by executive order, the Governor felt that the measure would be less likely to be subject to court challenge. He said that using a legislative process would make the measure “cleaner and unassailable.”
State Sen. Rob Samson, R- Wolcott, the single dissenting vote, criticized the Secretary of the State’s decision to mass mail absentee ballots to voters, and called the bill “a band-aid” to a bigger problem.
“I’m here to tell you that there are people who will not trust these elections,” said Samson.
Samson also expressed concern about a provision of the bill that prevents citizens from withdrawing their absentee ballots after the Friday before the elections.
State Sen. Will Haskell, D-New Canaan, the vice-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said that it was critical to make sure “that voters have confidence in the accessibility and the integrity of our election.”
Haskell said that the timeframe for determining the results from the November 3rd elections would probably vary between municipalities.
The bill does not require municipalities to start processing ballots before election day.
Cathy Carter, a registrar of voters in Old Lyme, said that she is talking with the town clerk about adopting early processing for the town, which she said has about 6,000 voters. Carter said that she expects to receive a large number of absentee ballots this year, and that having the extra time to process them would help.
“It’s all pretty exhausting,” Carter said of the election process. “Anything that can be done with fresh eyes leaves less room for error.”