Sparse Turnout, Smooth Execution for Connecticut’s First Ever Early Voting

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HARTFORD — Relatively few voters took advantage of the state’s first ever early voting which ended on Saturday, with local officials reporting that, despite limited funding and a quick changeover, a relatively smooth first run.

According to the Secretary of the State’s office, 12,697 Democrats and 5,365 Republicans cast ballots during the four-day run-up to today’s presidential primary, just 18,062 out of 1.2 million eligible voters.  

Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump clinched party nominations in mid-March, leaving Connecticut primary voters with little say in the matter and, evidently, little interest in casting a moot vote.  Just one percent of Connecticut residents allowed to vote in the state’s primary elections — those registered as Republicans or Democrats — chose to participate in the state’s early voting roll-out.  

”We got like 200 people over the four days,” said Cathy Politi, the Republican registrar, for Fairfield, a town with 23,763 eligible primary voters.  “Everything was very last minute.  We had a ton of training to do.  But I think it went off pretty much without a hitch,” she said. 

She expects a lot more people to be taking advantage of early voting in the fall for which she said her office is now better prepared.  “I think it’ll be much smoother next time.  I think everybody was a little on edge because all the information came a little late for us,” she explained.  “Now I think we’re pretty confident.  It was a good beta test and we worked all the kinks out.” 

The new state law mandates 14 days of early voting leading up to the state and federal elections on Nov. 5. Politi said that while registrars across the state have been tasked with rolling out a brand new system and procedures, most are not getting paid for the additional work.

“Essentially this year instead of having three voting days, we’re going to have 28.  So we really are inundated with work and we’re salaried, so we’re not going to get any additional money for all the extra time we have to put in,” she said.

Connecticut is comparatively late to adopt early voting, last week joining 45 other states offering the option of casting votes prior to Election Day.  Now only four states — Alabama, Delaware, Mississippi and New Hampshire — do not allow early in-person voting.

Old Lyme’s Democratic Registrar Jennifer Datum said early voting captured 113 of her town’s 3,547 eligible primary voters.  “It was less each day.  Wednesday was less than Tuesday, Thursday was less and then Saturday was even less. So each day there were fewer and fewer voters,” she said.

Cathy Carter, Old Lyme’s Republican Registrar, called the early voting process “very confusing.” Carter said her office received four or five iterations of an early voting handbook distributed by the Secretary of the State’s office with the last version arriving only a few days before the start of early voting. 

According to Middletown Registrar George Souto, a Republican, there was “last minute running around” due to changes in procedure, but he said “everything went well all four days.”  With only 155 early voters, Souto described turnout as “very, very low.” Souto questioned how many residents were even aware they could vote last week.

Souto told CT Examiner that in his view the current in-person early voting process was burdensome to voters and should be streamlined to mirror in-person voting on election day. He plans to make that recommendation to Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas, a Democrat.

Souto said Thomas “listens more than the previous one did,” and credited her for being “very accessible.” 

Last year’s state budget allocated $10,500 to every town for the implementation of early voting, an amount that Souto said was not enough to cover the additional days for most towns.

“About $10,500 might be enough for a small town but I guarantee you it was not enough for Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury because it wasn’t enough for us. So the state has mandated this but is not funding it.”

And Souto said the state didn’t allocate “a single dime” for November’s early voting, even though most towns, including Middletown, will need to hire more than double the staff employed for last week’s primary. 

Darien’s Republican Registrar Cara Gately said her office had been preparing for early voting for weeks.  Describing the new process as “clunky” and “not intuitive,” she credited her poll workers for having the “insight, knowledge and skill sets” to ensure a smooth experience for the 95 early voters who showed up.  

Still, she has concerns about how she can assemble enough staff for the two weeks of early voting in the fall without “burning out” poll workers.  

“Being there for eight hours, even though it wasn’t busy, it’s a very long day. And it wasn’t a dress rehearsal.  It was real,” Gately said. “It’s such a new process and they view it as an important part of the American infrastructure. That’s how poll workers look at this.  They take it very seriously.  They were really tired and stressed afterwards.”  

Gately viewed the early voting undertaking as valuable training for November when she expects the volume of voters to be much greater.  “I think having people more confident in what they’re doing is worth this exercise even though it was a lot of work,” she said.

Town clerks and registrars will share feedback about early voting in a call with the Secretary of the State on Thursday.

Gately said while there were a lot of last minute changes leading up to early voting, she said Thomas’ office did a “ tremendous amount of work on their end.”  In Gately’s view, Connecticut wasn’t properly prepared for the election.

“We have old tabulators.  We have an old CVRS [Centralized Voter Registration System].  We don’t have electronic poll books. It was more that the state passed something that we don’t have the soft infrastructure to carry out right.” 

Chris Prue, president of Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut, and a Democrat, said that despite “the quick roll out of early voting with limited funding,” the switch to early voting was “as seamless as possible.”

“With any new process there are always small bumps in the initial road,” said Prue. “The secretary and her staff did a great job with preparing towns as best they could. Some of the questions registrars came up with about the process beforehand were outside the scope of the passed legislation. That caused issues that cannot be quickly solved but led attorneys to review previous legislation and make a best recommendation.”

Prue said his organization is in the process of collecting data from registrars across the state on what steps need to be improved, legislation that may need to be changed and items to look more closely at before the next statewide voting event. 

“There is definitely room for improvement,” he said. “I think with all things considered, all parties involved did a great job with the information they had.”