For a second consecutive election, a law passed in the Connecticut state legislature will allow residents to cite COVID as a reason for voting by absentee ballot on Nov. 2. And in several towns across the state, the rates of absentee voting vastly exceed totals in 2019. But according to local election officials, absentee voting patterns appear to rise and fall depending on town-by-town efforts by the parties to distribute ballot applications.
In some towns, the number of residents requesting ballots has declined to pre-pandemic levels, others are still seeing abnormally high numbers of voters deciding to vote absentee.
Town clerks in Old Saybrook, Westbrook, East Lyme, Madison, Old Lyme, Darien, Danbury and Westport said that the number of absentee ballots they have received for this election were higher than in prior municipal election years.
They attributed those numbers to the widespread availability of the absentee ballots.
“I think people are really taking advantage of the fact that they didn’t have to come out,” said Westbrook Town Clerk Joan Angelini.
A few clerks cited particular contests that they thought were drawing more attention from local residents. Angelini said that the races for First Selectman and Board of Selectman in Westbrook were competitive this year. Sharon Uricchio, the town clerk in Clinton, said that the elections for four-year positions on the Town Council might have attracted more people to vote.
The distribution of absentee ballot applications in certain targeted towns, however, seems to also be playing a role.
These mass distributions have caused controversy recently — and a complaint to the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission — in towns where local Democrats have acted as “assistors,” pre-filling out information on ballot applications and signing them using a pre-printed signature.
Madison Town Clerk Nancy Martucci said that both Democrats and Republicans in Madison distributed absentee ballot applications to voters. But while Democrats pre-filled the applications with voter information and what appeared to be a digital signature, Republicans distributed blank applications. Martucci said that Democrats distributed 3,466 applications. Amy Stefanowski, head of the Republican Town Committee, said the Republicans had distributed just over 3,000.
According to Martucci, 1,622 absentee ballots were issued in Madison, with 1,216 returned as of Monday morning. Three times the number of ballots were issued to Democrats as compared with Republican voters in town. Martucci said that in 2019, there were about 348 total absentee ballots received.
Angelini said that Westbrook was seeing a higher number of unaffiliated voters in town since last year’s municipal elections, which she said accounted for an “overwhelming amount” of the absentee ballots. She said that the local Republican party had sent out absentee ballot applications to both Republican and Unaffiliated voters in the town.
Harry Ruppenicker Jr, chair of the Westbrook Republican Town Committee, said the town had distributed about 1,200 blank ballots to Republican and unaffiliated voters in town.
Sarah Becker, the town clerk in Old Saybrook, said that the Republicans collected about 1500 applications for absentee ballots to distribute to voters. The ballots were not pre-filled with voter information.
Becker said that while she believed this may have affected the number of absentee voters, she thinks the bigger reason was ongoing concerns about COVID.
“Some of them still don’t want to go to the polls,” she said.
Old Saybrook issued 350 absentee ballots, and 278 have been returned as of Monday morning, according to Assistant Town Clerk Tina Antolino. Comparatively, in the 2019 municipal elections, a total of 132 individuals voted via absentee ballot. The town has a total of just over 9,000 registered voters.
Madison Town Clerk Nancy Martucci echoed Becker. She said she believed that because of COVID, the town would have had a high number of voters choosing absentee voting regardless of the Democrat or Republican’s distribution of applications.
In Westport, where three candidates are vying for the open seat as First Selectman, 1,828 absentee ballots have been issued and 1,420 of which have been returned. The last time the first selectman was on the ballot, in 2017, the town received a total of 677 ballots, according to town clerk Jeffrey Dunkerton. Westport has just over 19,800 registered voters.
According to Dunkerton, both Republicans and Democrats in Westport registered as distributors of absentee ballots. He said that both parties distributed blank forms.
In Darien, 1,140 absentee ballots were issued and 869 returned as of 4:15 p.m. according to the Town Clerk’s Office — about a tenfold increase compared to 2019. According to the Town Clerk’s office, both the Democratic and the Republican parties had distributed absentee ballot applications, none of which appeared to have been uniformly pre-filled.
Janice Geigler, town clerk for the City of Danbury, said the city issued 1,596 absentee ballots and has received 1,363 returned as of 4:45 p.m. Monday. She said that while these numbers were higher than in previous municipal elections — the last municipal election, she said, came in at around 943 absentee ballots — she expected them to be even higher.
Geigler said that Democrats distributed about 5,000 absentee ballot applications and Republicans distributed 1,800 absentee ballot applications, none of which were pre-filled. Danbury has about 43,000 registered voters.
The distribution of absentee ballot forms wasn’t the only driving force for the high absentee ballot rates.
East Lyme town clerk Karen Miller Galbo said that none of the political parties had registered as distributors of absentee ballot applications. Yet the town has issued 517 absentee ballots this year compared to 283 two years ago.
In Old Lyme, town clerk Vicki Urbowicz said that 392 absentee ballots were issued this year, compared with 209 in 2019. She said that Democrats distributed 50 absentee ballot applications.
Galbo said she thought the high rates of voting absentee were simply the result of a new awareness that people had that this type of voting was possible.
Other towns reported absentee ballot rates that were either lower or similar to prior municipal election years. Chester, Deep River and Essex all reported absentee ballot numbers that were either comparable to past municipal elections or slightly lower. In Deep River and Essex, none of the local political parties applied to distribute absentee ballot applications.
Amy Macmillan Winchell, the town clerk in Deep River, said that she thought there was a lack of interest in the elections this year.
“[There’s] one contested seat on the entire ballot,” she said. “[Local political parties] are not even putting up signs. It’s amazing.”
Jonathan Ayala, City Clerk in New London, said he thought the city’s return to pre-pandemic absentee voting levels was a result of new confidence in the state of the pandemic.
“I just think people are not as afraid anymore,” said Ayala. “I think people are going to go to the polls.”