Connecticut is one of only three states that do not allow early balloting, and it reportedly has the most restrictive absentee voting laws in the U.S.
But Connecticut citizens got a taste of the convenience of voting early by absentee ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the restrictions were relaxed.
Now, with an amended law in place, candidates are appealing to that sense of convenience by mailing citizens applications for absentee ballots.
Maybe too many applications.
The governor’s seat and all seats in the state Legislature are up for grabs on Nov. 8, and many candidates in both major parties are taking advantage of the 6-month-old change in the law that allows a citizen to vote by absentee ballot “when a specific, identifiable disease,” such as COVID-19, “is present” – even if that citizen is not sick.
Before the change, voters could request absentee ballots only if they were: sick; disabled; out of town on election day; serving in the military; prohibited by religious practice; or unable to vote in person because of official election-day duties.
Now, under an expanded interpretation of the “sickness” excuse, voters who feel they cannot appear in a polling place because of the continued presence of a sickness such as COVID-19 may vote by absentee ballot.
So campaigns are requesting tens of thousands of ballot applications from town clerks’ offices statewide and mailing them to voters who did not ask for them, leaving some voters bewildered.
Points of confusion for voters, according to town clerks:
- Some mistake absentee ballot applications for ballots
- Some think receiving an absentee ballot application means they may not vote in person
- Though campaigns must include a letter explaining why the application is being sent unsolicited, some voters think it comes from their town or state government
- Some voters receive applications from more than one candidate
- Some voters fill out each application they receive and mail them to the town clerk
The confusion is increasing workloads for town clerks, who must track each application they issue to campaigns, then process the ones returned to them, said Lyda Ruijter, the town clerk in Stamford.
“Some voters are sending us duplicate applications. Some are calling us and saying, ‘I just received another absentee ballot application – can you check to see if you got the first one I sent you?’” Ruijter said. “Under the old rules, we dealt with a much smaller set of absentee voters. This is much bigger.”
Worth the price of postage
One contributor to the slew of unsolicited absentee ballot applications is Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat running for re-election against Republican Bob Stefanowski.
Lamont’s campaign, Ned for CT, is sending voters a two-sided letter, an absentee ballot application from the town where the individual voter lives, and a postage-paid envelope addressed to the clerk in that town.
Lamont campaign spokesman Jake Lewis did not answer questions about how many applications Ned for CT mailed, or how the recipients were chosen, because it would reveal campaign strategy.
It’s a significant expense. Besides the cost of printing the materials and sending them to voters, each mailing includes a return envelope with the 60-cent, first-class postage paid by the campaign.
According to the secretary of the state’s office, Connecticut has about 2.5 million voters, including 1 million unaffiliated, 905,000 Democrats, and 498,000 Republicans.
If Ned for CT sent applications to one-third of Democrats, hoping to make it easier for them to vote for Lamont, the cost would be $180,000 for return envelopes alone.
Campaigns must think the effort is worth the expense.
“Voters are definitely responding,” Ruijter said. “They are using the applications they get in the mail to seek absentee ballots.”
Lamont campaign spokesman Lewis would say only this:
“As (Secretary of the State Mark) Kohler reminded voters in August, access to absentee ballots was expanded this year, and we are helping to make voters aware that they may now be eligible to vote by absentee ballot, which is secure, easy, and convenient,” Lewis said in an email.
Trying not to befuddle voters
State Sen. Matt Lesser of Middletown, a Democrat representing District 9, said he mailed absentee ballot applications to some of his constituents but checked with Lamont’s campaign and others in his area to avoid targeting the same voters.
“We tried to reduce duplication, but nothing is 100 percent,” said Lesser, a former state representative running for a second Senate term. “Confusing voters is never in anyone’s interest.”
Lesser spoke in favor of the expanded absentee balloting bill when the Legislature was about to vote on it in March. It’s “a way to strengthen democracy,” Lesser told his colleagues.
“In 2020, in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, you might have expected voter turnout to fall” because “people were afraid of congregating in large settings,” Lesser said.
Instead, “voter participation soared” because of expanded absentee balloting, Lesser told his colleagues, and turnout hit 80 percent.
“When you make voting a little easier, more people do it,” Lesser said.
The bill passed with wide bipartisan support, but the state’s absentee balloting system needs work, Lesser said Wednesday.
“We put a stop-gap system in place during the pandemic to make it more comfortable for people to vote, but there is opportunity ahead for reform,” he said.
It starts with a question that will be on the Nov. 8 ballot, Connecticut Democratic Party Chair Nancy DiNardo said. Voters will be asked to decide whether the state constitution should be changed to allow the legislature to enact early voting.
“I think if we have early voting, it will lessen the use of absentee ballots,” DiNardo said. “I would hope that once state legislators start looking at early voting, they will consult the secretary of the state and the registrars and town clerks to see where the issues are, and ask for suggestions for how to change the system.”
It’s not voting; it’s applying
Ruijter said town clerks generally favor early voting, not increased use of absentee ballots. The problem with absentee ballots is the applications, Ruijter said.
“The application has become the form of communication the parties use to let their voters know there is an election, but the unaffiliated voters, who are nearly in the majority in many towns, are not being served,” she said.
Parties also take out large numbers of applications and bring them to nursing homes, apartment buildings, and other places with lots of voters, Ruijter said.
And, during an election, “campaigns send people to our office every day to get the latest list of voters who were sent absentee ballots, and they immediately get on the phone to those voters or send them information,” Ruijter said. “The campaigns call those people ‘chasers.’ I feel the absentee ballot process should not be connected to campaigns in any way.”
One solution is to do what Colorado does, Ruijter said.
“They send a ballot to every eligible voter. There are no applications,” she said. “That cleans it up. It’s hard for campaigns to reach bunches of voters if each voter is mailed a ballot directly and votes on their own.”
Stefanowski’s campaign manager, Pat Sasser, and communications director, Sarah Clark, did not return requests for comment Wednesday. Neither did state Republican Party Chair Ben Proto.
But Desmond Conner, communications director for the Connecticut secretary of the state, said his office met with the Lamont campaign and state Republicans “to go over the laws related to sending out absentee ballot applications to voters who didn’t request them.”
Both groups “have been sending out unsolicited ballot applications to voters,” said Conner, who provided a copy of a Proto letter asking voters to fill out an absentee ballot application and mail it to their town clerk.
Conner said that, in 2020, the secretary of the state sent an absentee ballot application to every registered active voter in Connecticut, “causing the parties and campaigns to not send out applications, and avoiding the confusion of voters getting multiple applications.”
The state did that using federal COVID funding designated for use in the 2020 election, Conner said. But the state did not mail applications to voters in the 2021 or 2022 elections because the funding was not continued, Conner said.
There has been some help, however.
“We were able to disburse $1 million in federal funding to the town clerks of Connecticut’s 169 towns to give them additional resources to handle the higher volume of absentee ballots than in pre-COVID elections,” Conner said.