STAMFORD – On Feb. 1, the town clerk received 81 applications from voters seeking absentee ballots so they could have a say in a special election to determine the new state representative from the 144th District.
But there was a problem.
The election was Jan. 25.
The ballot applications arrived a week after the election, even though they were postmarked Jan. 7, Town Clerk Lyda Ruijter said.
So where was the town clerk’s mail for 25 days?
“All I know is that a bunch of our mail was not processed for more than three weeks,” Ruijter said. “I also don’t know if it stops with 81 absentee ballot applications. Are there more out there?”
During an election her staff repeatedly checks the town clerk’s postal box in the downtown Stamford post office on Summer Street, Ruijter said.
“Several days our box was empty. We were told by the post office clerk it was because there wasn’t enough staff to sort the mail that day,” she said. “So they were sitting on piles of mail.”
It’s not the first time the postal service has been cited for making things difficult for voters.
In August 2020, three months before the rancorous Biden vs. Trump presidential election, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong and his counterparts in 13 states sued U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee, charging that he bypassed federal laws when he ordered sweeping cuts and other changes that disrupted the flow of mail – and mail-in ballots.
But the changes have continued under the Biden administration. On Oct. 1, DeJoy lengthened delivery time for first-class mail and packages, increased prices, and cut post office hours.
Postal Service spokeswoman Amy Gibbs said Tuesday the U.S. Postal Service “is committed to fulfilling its role in the electoral process as a secure, efficient and effective way for citizens to participate when policymakers decide to use mail as part of their elections. We provide election officials with a secure, efficient and effective means to enable citizens to participate in elections.”
As for the ballot applications that were returned after election day, Gibbs said “we are unaware of delays in our processing, sorting or delivery in that time period. Without further information and a review of the actual mailpieces, we are unable to comment further.”
It’s frustrating, Ruijter said, especially when added to a postal service policy that baffles town clerks.
“We don’t get mail on Tuesdays,” Ruijter said. “Elections are on Tuesdays.”
It’s been true for at least five years, said Waterbury Town Clerk Chick Spinelli, former president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association.
“My staff calls it No Mail Tuesday. We get a lot of mail every day, but a few years back we started to notice this Tuesday thing – there’d be only two or three pieces of mail for our office,” Spinelli said. “We asked about it and the post office said it’s because they centralized our processing.”
The post office couldn’t have picked a worse day of the week, Spinelli said.
“Many voters wait until the last minute – we always get a significant number of ballots on election day,” she said. “We go to the post office, which is next door to us, and say, ‘Is anything there?’ They say, ‘No. It’s just not in the facility.’
“Maybe the post office’s no-mail day should be a Saturday instead of a Tuesday.”
Ruijter said town clerks need better answers from postal service officials. Her office began hearing from voters as the date of the Jan. 25 special election neared, she said.
“I cannot issue a ballot unless I get an application, and I didn’t have the applications,” Ruijter said.
Some voters got angry.
“They said I was disenfranchising them,” Ruijter said. “Some said they were voting by absentee because they were fearful of COVID. So I made appointments to meet them in the government center parking garage near the ballot drop-off box. I gave them an application, they filled it out and placed it on their windshield. I checked it then checked their ID through the car window. If everything looked good, I gave them a ballot. They filled it out, dropped it in the box and drove away.”
The special election for the state House of Representatives District 144 seat, vacated by Caroline Simmons when she was elected Stamford mayor in November, was won by Democrat Hubert Delany, who got 1,661 votes. Republican Danny Melchionne got 1,323 – a difference of 338 votes. So if, in fact, 81 voters didn’t cast a ballot because their applications were lost, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
Still, it’s no way to run an election, said Ruijter, who is preparing for the March 1 balloting that will seat new members on the Democratic City Committee and Republican Town Committee.
“People like voting by mail, but how can we continue to allow it if the post office doesn’t shape up?” she said.