With a week to go before the Nov. 3 election, a survey of town clerks and registrars in towns across southeast Connecticut shows that voters in the region have requested and returned ballots at a rate exceeding already high statewide totals.
In many of the towns that number is 75 percent or higher. In Chester, for example, 83 percent of the people who requested absentee ballots have returned them; in Stonington, 79 percent of the absentee ballots issued have already been returned.
The Connecticut Mirror reports that statewide 70 percent of the more than 455,000 people who requested an absentee ballot have already returned their ballot.
In several southeast Connecticut towns, including Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, East Lyme, Essex and Chester, the number of issued absentee ballots has already reached more than half the total number of people who voted in the 2016 presidential election.
In towns surveyed by CT Examiner, Democrats have so far requested anywhere from double to more than 3.5 times the number of absentee ballots compared to Republicans in the same town. Unaffiliated voters occupy a middle ground.
In Deep River, about 25 percent of unaffiliated voters have requested absentee ballots, compared to 41.6 percent of Democrats and 18.9 percent of Republicans. In East Lyme, 35.5 percent of unaffiliated voters requested absentee ballots, compared with 51 percent of Democrats and 27.1 percent of Republicans.
In New London, which has a total of 16,449 registered voters, 3,330 have requested absentee ballots so far, or 20 percent — a far lower percentage than other towns in the region. About one quarter of New London democrats have requested absentee ballots, compared with 16.2 percent of Republicans and 15.8 percent of unaffiliated voters. Out of those 3,330, about 60 percent have returned their absentee ballots so far.
A high number of absentee ballots issued doesn’t necessarily mean that more people will vote absentee — voters can still vote in-person if they haven’t cast a ballot absentee. David Campo, town clerk of Waterford, said that people he’d spoken with had told him that they requested an absentee ballot “just in case.”
Campo suggested that voters might also have been confused by the fact that an absentee ballot application was sent out to every registered voter in the mail.
Anticipating a high number of absentee ballots this year, the legislature passed a law during the special session in September allowing registrars to begin opening the outer envelopes of absentee ballot forms beginning on Friday of this week. The law was intended to ease the workload of the registrars on election day.
However, many towns have declined to do this, saying that the number of voters is too small, or citing other problems that exist within this system.
Betsy Moukawsher, the town clerk of Groton, said that opening up the envelopes early meant that you have to take out the inner envelope, paperclip one to the other, and then worry about having to keep everything together.
“It’s really time consuming,” she said, adding that she thinks Groton’s group of 42 ballot counters are better off doing everything on election day.
Karen Miller Galbo, East Lyme’s town clerk, said she was concerned that opening the envelopes early would mean that if someone died between Friday and Monday, their vote would end up being counted accidentally.
Other towns, like Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and Essex, say that they are taking advantage of the new rule in order to “get a head start” on the ballot counting.
Local party officials weigh in
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans alike say they are prepared for a high voter turnout.
“I believe we’re going to have a really big turnout this year, said Lori Ann Clymas, chair of the Democratic Town Committee of Chester. “There’s been a lot of energy in our tri-town area.”
Scott Halldan, chair of the Republican Town Committee of Deep River, agrees.
“There’s actually a lot of energy in Deep River, more so than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been here over six years,” he said.
Clymas said having the option to vote absentee was critical.
“I think that the absentee ballot was a key, important issue, giving people a safe way to vote,” she said.
Beth Hogan, chair of the East Lyme Governance Subcommittee and member of the town’s Democratic Town Committee, said she thinks that without the absentee ballots, individuals with compromised immune systems wouldn’t take the risk of voting in person.
Halldan, however, said he thinks people would have come out to vote in this election regardless of whether or not there had been absentee ballots widely available. He said that people on both sides have such passionate feelings about the issues that they will feel driven to make their voices known.
Town clerks and registrars say they are not at all worried about having enough poll workers. Several say that, in spite of the risks posed by COVID, they have more volunteers than they know what to do with.
“We had a lot of new folks step up,” said Jim Crawford, registrar of voters in Westbrook. “Which is very helpful.” He said that a lot of their regular poll workers fell into the high-risk category for the virus.
“For the first time, we have a waiting list,” said Peggy Cawley, registrar of voters in Stonington. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm.”
Hogan said one of the bigger challenges would be making sure that people fill out the entire ballot, including the local elections, and don’t just cast their vote for president.
“This is so unique historically, people might just be saying change, change everywhere,” she said.
Voter registration ends Oct. 27, but election-day voter registration will still be available. Registered voters can request absentee ballots through Nov. 2.
Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, November 3.