With one week before the elections, absentee ballot counts from clerks in cities and small towns across Connecticut are exceeding totals from the 2018 midterm elections, prior to the pandemic, but are falling well short of 2020 totals.
Town clerks say the increase in absentee ballot numbers compared to the last midterm elections — although nowhere near the record levels of the 2020 presidential election — has been helped along by the efforts of various political campaigns and changes to state law making it easier to vote absentee.
As of Tuesday, Stamford had issued over 5,300 absentee ballots, 2,700 of which have been returned. Of the ballots that have been returned, 62 percent are from registered Democrats, 17 percent are from registered Republicans and 19 percent are from unaffiliated voters.
According to the Secretary of the State’s Office, just under 2,600 absentee ballots from Stamford were counted in the 2018 midterm election.
Hartford had issued about 2,200 absentee ballots as of Monday — about 400 more than the city issued in 2018 — and received back about half of them, according to Town Clerk Noel McGregor.
With over 71,000 voters in the city, and 24,000 voters who turned out to vote in 2018, the number of absentee ballots is still a fraction of the number of voters in the city.
But in the small towns, those numbers can make a bigger difference.
Nancy Martucci, the town clerk in Madison, said she expected far more people to vote absentee in Madison this year compared to last year.
The town, which has around 14,000 registered active voters, has already issued over 1,700 absentee ballots and received back about 1,150 — more than were counted in the 2018 gubernatorial election. And Martucci said she doesn’t think they’ve received all of them.
“With a current office full of voters and a week to go we will far surpass last year’s numbers,” Martucci told CT Examiner in an email.
In many towns, a disproportionate number of voters who mailed in absentee ballots were registered Democrats, while unaffiliated voters tended to be underrepresented in the count.
In Madison, half of the returned ballots were from Democrats, who make up only about 30 percent of active voters in the town. Just under a quarter were from Republicans and just over a quarter were from unaffiliateds who make up the town’s largest group of voters.
Essie Labrot, town clerk in West Hartford, told CT Examiner in an email that she believed campaigns mailing out absentee ballot applications had an effect on people’s decision to request the ballots. Campaigns from both the Democratic party – including Gov. Ned Lamont’s campaign and State Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown — as well as some Republican campaigns, have been sending out absentee ballot applications to voters en masse.
“The campaigns have sent out an unusual number of Absentee Ballot applications unsolicited this year,” Labrot told CT Examiner in an email. “Gov. Lamont’s campaign sent out over 13,000 in West Hartford alone, and the State GOP sent out 1,900.”
Town clerk Jonathan Ayala of New London said he didn’t think Democrats were necessarily more likely to vote absentee than Republicans — he said it made sense that there would be a large number of Democrats voting absentee in New London, given that New London was a mainly Democratic city.
But Ayala agreed that what he called the “marketing” from both the Republican and Democratic parties encouraging people to vote absentee was contributing to the increased numbers.
“Traditionally these numbers would have never been this high,” Ayala told CT Examiner.
New London has issued just over 600 absentee ballots, nearly 400 of which have been returned. He said he expects most people who requested absentee ballots to return them before November 8. In 2018, a total of 336 absentee ballots were counted.
Ayala said that COVID had made the idea of voting via absentee ballot familiar to voters.
“It became an option that most people never considered,” he said.
Kate Wall, town clerk in Berlin, said her town expected to see double the number of absentee ballots compared to 2018 — she said the town has received about 1,200 requests. She agreed with Ayala about the effects of COVID.
“A lot of people — they were comfortable doing the absentee ballots and they continued to be comfortable,” she said. “Covid still exists. There’s variants out there, and now the flu is supposed to be a heavy year.”
New Britain town clerk Mark Bernacki said that even though the 900 absentee ballots the city had already received was more than the approximately 650 cast in the 2018 election, it was nowhere near the number they’d counted during 2020 presidential election — about 6,750, according to the Secretary of the State’s website.
Bernacki said he believed the increased number of absentee ballots stemmed from changes in the law, including a new portal through the Secretary of the State’s office that allows people to apply for an absentee ballot online. The legislature also approved a change in state statute that allows people to vote absentee not only because of a personal illness, but in the case of a public health emergency that could put them or an individual they care for at risk if they were exposed to a communicable disease.
Connecticut is one of only three states that doesn’t allow early voting, although that will be a question on the ballot this year.
Wall said that the mass mailings of absentee ballot applications also caused confusion, especially when voters received multiple copies of the form from different candidates. Ayala said people sometimes equate absentee ballots to a form of early voting, which it isn’t.
Ben Proto, chair of the Republican Party, said that while some Republican campaigns had mailed out absentee ballot applications to targeted groups of voters, he believed people were getting back into the normal routine of going to the polls.
“I think at the end of the day, most people, if they can, would prefer to vote in person,” he said. “I think it gives them a better sense of security of their vote.”
Nancy DiNardo, who chair’s the Democratic Party, did not respond to requests for comment.