The Connecticut Secretary of the State’s Office is taking responsibility for a violation of Connecticut state statute that affects thousands of absentee ballot applications that Democratic campaigns issued to voters in towns across the state. The mistake, while raising serious concerns about ballot procedures, is not expected to invalidate any requests for absentee ballots.
The violation involves exactly how campaigns are permitted to “assist” voters — without being asked — by sending out absentee ballot applications that are already partially filled out with the voter’s name, home address and date of birth.
According to Connecticut state law, people or campaigns that fill in personal information on an application for someone else must sign the application by hand. However, in this instance, Democratic campaigns in several towns sent out thousands of these applications signed with an electronically-generated signature.
The applications were sent out in the towns of Wallingford, Manchester, Newington and Guilford, among others. The campaigns had contracted with Blue Edge Strategies, a Manchester-based firm that consults for Democratic campaigns.
Yesterday, two Guilford residents, Deborah DeMusis and George Mack, held a press conference to announce that they were filing a complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission regarding the mailing of these ballot applications in Guilford.
DeMusis said she expected that the SEEC would determine that the campaigns sending out the ballot application forms had broken state law.
“The law was broken. It’s very clear,” she said. “I mean, it’s pretty much black and white. You make laws, you follow us if they’re broken and there are consequences.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Bill Bloss, Bloss, whose signature was on the Guilford ballot applications, told CT Examiner that the campaign had followed emailed guidance issued by the Secretary of the State’s Office. Bloss is a self-described campaign advisor for both the Democratic and Independent Party Board of Education candidates in Guilford.
“The Guilford Democratic Town Council and its campaign consultants corresponded with the Secretary of the State’s office about what they were doing and with the town clerk about what they were doing, and did everything the way we were advised was proper to do. We sent applications to Democrats with an envelope for voters to return, and then the ballot itself goes directly to voters. It’s perfectly legal, and it’s been done in other towns for years without complaint,” Bloss said.
Connecticut State Statute does permit absentee ballot applications to be filled out by a third party on behalf of the requester. In this case, the person who fills out the ballot, known as an “assistor” must sign the ballot in “wet ink,” according to newly-clarified guidance from the Office of the Secretary of the State. For the mailers in question, the campaigns signed the ballot using a reproduced electronic signature, in apparent violation of election statute.
Under state law, such a failure to follow rules related to absentee ballot voting can result in a potential fine of $2,000 per violation.
State Republican Party Chairman Ben Proto said in a statement that either Secretary of the State Denise Merrill should open an investigation or the State Elections Enforcement Commission should take the matter up.
“There are certain laws in place that, at some point, the laws have to mean something. And so, you know, it says you have to have a wet signature. There’s a reason why it wants a wet signature. I could pre-populate these things, send them out and put your name on there and you have no idea,” Proto told CT Examiner.
In a conversation by phone, state Democratic Party Chair Nancy DiNardo said the incident was not indicative of any larger issue or voting irregularity, and said she was grateful that the Secretary of the State’s office took responsibility for the miscommunication.
“The Secretary of the State’s office put out a statement saying that it was their fault, that they had said it was okay and then realized it was a mistake,” DiNardo said. “Some people may try to challenge it in court, but I don’t know where that would go, since the Secretary of the State’s office said it was their fault.”
Gabe Rosenberg, general counsel at the Secretary of the State’s Office, said that this is the first time this issue has come up. Prior to the pandemic, absentee ballots could only be issued in very limited circumstances. However, a law passed in the legislature this spring allows individuals to use COVID-19 as a legitimate reason for requesting an absentee ballot through this November election, greatly widening the potential for individuals to vote absentee.
In an Oct.14 letter from Connecticut Director of Elections Ted Bromley to State Elections Enforcement Commission Executive Director Michael Brandi, Bromley explained that although Connecticut state statute does require wet signatures on the ballot applications, the campaigns had relied on guidance from the Office of the Secretary of the State. Bromley, who issued that advice in an Aug. 9 email, later described his wording as “imprecise.”
“Our review of the communication between this office and a representative of various campaigns across the state has led us to the conclusion that, due to a miscommunication caused by imprecise language on our part, many campaigns may have understandably relied on those emails to believe that it was permissible to use a reproduced signature on the pre-filled applications. Although Connecticut statute does require a “wet ink” signature, it is clear that campaigns could have justifiably relied on our advice to believe the opposite was true,” wrote Bromley.
In an August 9 email exchange between Ted Bromley, Connecticut Director of Elections at the Secretary of the State’s Office, and Mike Farina, owner of Blue Edge Strategies, Farina asked Bromley whether the signature of an individual who is “assisting” an individual in filling out an application for an absentee ballot needs to be signed in wet ink, or if it can be a digital signature.
“I was recently told that that signature needs to be wet. Is that in statute? Or are we safe sending applications out in bulk with a printed signature? We’ve done that for years with no issue (but that doesn’t mean it’s been legal),” wrote Farina.
Bromley replied with three words: “Digital is fine.”
Farina told CT Examiner on Thursday that he asked for clarification on the absentee ballot law and reached out to the Secretary of the State for guidance.
“In the past a digital signature has never been an issue. We requested clarification from the Secretary of the State’s office and were provided explicit, clear guidance that a digital signature was fine as long as it was a copy of an actual signature,” Farina told CT Examiner on Thursday.
James Krupinski, the town clerk in Newington, said he began receiving absentee ballot applications with assistor signatures that were completed digitally on October 4. He said he contacted John Kelly, the chairman of the Newington Democratic Town Committee, whose signature was on the ballot as the assistor. Kelly forwarded Bromley’s response to Mike Farina saying that a digital signature was acceptable.
After communications with at least one town clerk regarding the issue, on October 4 Bromley sent out an additional email to Farina clarifying his guidance.
“When I responded ‘digital is fine’ I meant a copy of an actual signature. The examples I have been
provided are not a copy of a digital signature, they are a Microsoft Word version of a script. This is not appropriate. It would have been best that you provided me with an example. Obviously, the requirement of a wet signature or a copy of a real signature is to ensure that the ‘assistor’ actually ‘assisted’ in the document. Reproducing applications at a print shop goes far beyond assisting.”
On October 6, the Secretary of the State’s Office released a memo to all town clerks detailing how they should approach the digitally-signed absentee ballots.
“We are aware of the fact that many of you have received some completed absentee ballot applications where a campaign has filled in section 1. This requires the person who filled out Section 1 of the application to also complete section 4 as an assistor of the applicant and personally sign the application (aka, in “wet ink”) … However, if you, as the town clerk, receive such an application and it is otherwise valid, you should not penalize the voter for such a mistake. You should issue the absentee ballot and refer the matter to the State Elections Enforcement Commission.” reads the memo.
Jonathan Shapiro, an elections lawyer and partner at Aeton Law in Middletown, said he felt the Secretary of the State’s office “could have been clearer” in their communication about digitally signed ballots, but that the larger issue is one of stretching the intent of absentee ballot law in Connecticut.
“I just don’t see how anyone can say that pre-filling these things out, not talking to the people and just cold sending them, would be assistance within the spirit of the statute,” Shapiro said. “This is why people question the integrity of elections sometimes, because people will always try to stretch the limits. I don’t see how that is assistance because you’re not actually doing anything to assist the person.”
Town clerks and candidates respond
Deborah McKiernan, the town clerk in Wallingford, said that she, too, had received absentee ballot applications that had come in with an electronic assessor’s signature, and that she had also referred the issue to the SEEC. She said that over 2,500 of these applications had been sent out.
Krupienski estimated that over 4,000 of the applications were sent out to voters in Newington. Krupienski said that he was separating out the applications and ballots from the general pool while he awaited the decision of the State Elections Enforcement Commission.
John Kelly, Chairman of the Democratic Party in Newington, whose signature was on the applications, told CT Examiner that he believed the applications were in compliance with the law, although he understood the town clerk’s concerns.
“The understanding was … and it still is, that these were perfectly valid applications to be sent out,” said Kelly. “Obviously a lot of these things are new rules, new regulations and new interpretations … there’s certainly a level of newness in this, but we definitely ran it by the Secretary of [the] State’s office long before we engaged in sending them out.”
McKiernan said that she was asking the individuals who signed as assistors — mayoral candidate Riley O’Connell and Whitney Mooney — come in to sign the ballot applications in wet ink on a weekly basis as the forms are received.
“I just want to make sure everything is correct. I don’t want to have any issues with our election,” McKiernan said.
O’Connell told CT Examiner he believed the digital signatures were acceptable under the law at the time when the ballots were sent out.
“I worked at the Department of Justice before that, and for every legal signature we’ve ever used, there was always a scan anyway,” he said. “I’ve never encountered a legal situation in which it being a scan of an actual signature as opposed to an original print was, was an issue.”
Mooney told CT Examiner that the idea to send out the ballot applications with the electronic signatures came from Farina. She said she “had no idea about any of this.”
O’Connell said he hadn’t yet decided whether or not he would come in to sign the forms weekly. He said his arthritis would make it difficult for him to sign thousands of applications by hand.
“If the town clerk is seriously concerned that … they could be invalidated, then yes, we will take that extra precaution,” O’Connell said.
Rosenberg, the general counsel for the Secretary of the State’s Office, said in a statement that the misunderstanding, which he characterized as “wholly technical” should not impact voters’ ability to cast a ballot in the election. He said the town clerks have been told to accept the applications and mail an absentee ballot to the voters who requested one.
“Our office’s main concern, and the main concern of local election officials across the state, is that eligible voters are able to participate in this November’s election safely and conveniently in the method of their choosing,” said Rosenberg.
Editor’s Note: this story has been updated to include comments by Democratic Chair Nancy DiNardo and election lawyer Jonathan Shapiro. This story has also been corrected to reflect that our identification of Whitney Mooney as candidate for Wallingford Town Council was incorrect. Mooney explored a run, but is not currently running for the office.