The November 2020 general election will be a defining moment in history. But in this era of COVID-19, how can Wiltonians’ be sure their vote will count?
The New York Times reported that a whopping 80 million Americans are expected to vote by mail in the coming election. In a recent change for a state that didn’t have ‘no-excuse absentee voting,’ Connecticut will now allow any registered voter to apply for an absentee ballot using COVID-19 as a reason, thanks to bipartisan legislation, Public Act 20-03 July Spec. Sess., passed in July.
Whether all those votes will be counted, however, is not as guaranteed.
The state’s Aug. 11 primary vote shed light on the efficacy of mail-in ballots, highlighting flaws and strengths in the system. Anticipating a large number of absentee ballot applications, Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill hired a mailing house to oversee mailing absentee ballots to applicants, a job traditionally handled by municipal town clerks. One week before the primary, the state had already processed 267,000 absentee ballot applications by that point, more than 20x what the state would typically process during a normal year. That’s when it was learned that the mailing house didn’t send out about 20,000 ballots–195 of which belonged to Wilton residents.
The 20,000 leftover ballots sent town clerks scrambling to mail them directly to voters, giving those citizens less time to cast their votes and mail-back their ballots, potentially affecting whether or not their votes were counted.
Nonetheless, in Wilton, absentee voting was largely a success. According to Connecticut Election Management System, in the town’s Democratic primary, with 4,090 active registered Democrats, 1,811 people (44.3%) voted; of those, 1,355 (74.1%) voted absentee (including 12 from overseas and one military), compared to just 456 (25.2%) people who voted in-person. Only 21 of those absentee ballots were rejected.
Democratic Primary–Aug. 11, 2020
|Active List Voters||4,090|
|Voted in Primary||1,811||44.3%|
|Voted by Machine||456||25.2%|
Republicans had slightly fewer names on Wilton’s active list of registered Republicans at 3,701; of those 1,025 (27.7%) cast a vote. While the overwhelming majority of Democrats voted absentee, the trend shifted significantly for Republicans, with 565 people voting in-person and 460 voting absentee (including two abroad). Of those absentee ballots, 14 were rejected.
Republican Primary–Aug. 11, 2020
|Active List Voters||3,701|
|Voted in Primary||1,025||27.7%|
|Voted by Machine||565||55.1%|
General Election Absentee Ballots–Dates and How-To’s
1. Make Sure You’re Registered to Vote
Under the new Connecticut law, in order to ensure everyone has an equal ability to participate in the 2020 general election, anyone who is registered to vote is eligible for an absentee ballot. The deadline for registering to vote in CT is the 7th day before the election (Oct. 27, 2020) and can be done online, in person or by mail (postmarked Oct. 27).
Residents can verify if they are registered to vote on the Registrar of Voters page on the town website.
2. Apply for an Absentee Ballot
Absentee voting is a two-step process in Connecticut: before a voter can receive an absentee ballot, he or she must request one by filling out and sending in an absentee ballot application to the municipal Town Clerk. This application form can be filled out at any time, even up to Monday, Nov. 2, the last day the town clerk can issue an absentee ballot.
In extreme cases, an individual can apply for an emergency ballot, but only if they qualify. This application is only for anyone who applies for an absentee ballot because of unforeseen illness or physical disability occurring within six days before the close of the polls at an election, primary, or referendum, or because they are patients in a hospital within such six-day period. This is the only kind of absentee ballot that can be issued on Election Day.
Applications in English and Spanish are available on the state website.
However, in a unique move this year, the Office of the Secretary of State will mail an application to every active, registered voter sometime between Sept. 8-11.
According to Wilton’s town website, the application can be returned by:
- Dropping it off in-person to the Town Clerk via the secure dropbox service at Town Hall at 238 Danbury Rd., Wilton, CT 06897 *[EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article said that applications could not be put into the secure ballot box outside the Police Station. Actually, in a change from the primary, applications now CAN be submitted by placing them in the ballot box just in front of Wilton Police Headquarters.
- Sending it to the Wilton Town Clerk via Fax (203.563.0130) or email. However, the original of any application emailed or faxed must be sent–completed and signed–to the Town Clerk, either with the absentee ballot or separately.
- Mailing it via USPS to the Town Clerk at Town Hall (238 Danbury Rd., Wilton, CT 06897).
3. Fill out the Absentee Ballot
Once the Town Clerk receives the application, the clerk will process the application and, if it’s approved, will enter the applicant into the Central Voter Registration System. Then the clerk will mail out a ballot with a serial number unique to the voter, to ensure only that voter can complete the ballot.
Ballots won’t be sent to voters until 31 days before a general election–which is Oct. 2 this year. Unlike the primary, the Secretary of State won’t be taking over the task of mailing an estimated one million absentee ballots (or delegating it to a mailing house). That means Town Clerks will have to handle the extraordinary task with limited resources.
4. Return the Absentee Ballot
Once voters receive and complete the absentee ballot, it can be returned by mail or in-person.
All completed ballots have to be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, in order to be counted. Officials recommend that people return their ballots as early as possible to ensure it will be counted.
The US Postal Service is recommending that people allow for at least a week for their ballot to arrive at Town Hall and reach the Town Clerk; for the November election, that means mailing it no later than Oct. 27.
Nationally there has been concern about the USPS’s ability to deliver all ballots on time under the state’s current guidelines. Fueling this concern was the USPS’s notification to 46 states warning them that the postal service would not be able to deliver all mail-in ballots in time for the November election. According to a Washington Post report in Mid-August, Connecticut was in the “heightened warning” category about likely delays.
Merrill has joined with other town and state officials to encourage voters to use absentee ballot drop boxes installed in towns throughout Connecticut. Wilton’s ballot drop box is located in front of the Wilton Police Department, and was widely–and successfully–used during the primary.
Reasons for Rejecting Absentee Ballots: Other Mistakes to Avoid
In an effort to make voting equitable, Connecticut has used some of the money it has received from the federal CARES ACT to expand access to absentee ballots and to make in-person voting safer. For instance, all necessary postage for voters to return their application and ballot will be paid for by the state.
In a statement on the state’s website, Merrill assured the public that her office and CT town clerks were prepared to handle the anticipated bombardment of absentee ballots.
“We are preparing for an unprecedented number of absentee ballots in our presidential primary, our state primary, and our general election in November, and I will be working closely with the town clerks to make sure they have the resources and support they need. Working together, we can deliver the election that Connecticut voters deserve, despite the difficult circumstances,” Merrill said.
However, many elements are out of the state’s control. Nonetheless, although voting absentee may not be as satisfying as feeding a ballot to the ballot box on election day, but voters can still take many steps to ensure their vote still counts.
According to NPR, 550,000 primary ballots have been rejected nationwide in primaries so far. Absentee ballots can be rejected for numerous reasons, most commonly for being received after election day, submitted without signatures, or improperly sealed. According to the article, first-time absentee voters are more likely to have their ballot rejected due to errors. Young voters and voters of color also have a greater likelihood of getting their ballot rejected than other voters.
An absentee ballot can also be rejected if a voter fills out the ballot incorrectly–for instance if a voter does not correctly fill in a bubble or chooses more than one candidate. But it can also be disregarded for smaller errors, such as if the signature on the ballot does not match the signature on file.
In-person ballots are more likely to be counted than absentee ballots because more people can catch an error before the ballot is turned in. About 1% of absentee ballots are rejected, versus one-hundredth of a percent of in-person ballots.
However, lawmakers around the country are fighting to eliminate the barriers barring some absentee ballots from being counted, most recently with Congress breaking their summer recess to call Postmaster General Louis Dejoy to testify about the Postal Service’s finances after Dejoy walked back controversial cuts on the Postal Service’s already slim budget.
In the meantime, officials agree that sending the ballot back early is one of the most crucial steps to making sure it’s counted. One alternative for improving those chances is by bypassing possible USPS delays altogether and using Wilton’s dropbox on the Town Hall’s campus.
Even though Wilton’s 84% voter turnout for the 2016 presidential election didn’t meet the Registrars of Voters’ predicted 90%, the number was still high as 10,678 Wiltonians cast a vote, the highest number of any 2000s presidential election.
With potentially higher numbers for 2020, Merrill is nonetheless giving assurances that the state is doing everything in its power to make sure all voters can cast their vote safely and effectively, and that the pandemic was not a barrier to anyone.
“We are facing an unprecedented public health emergency and we cannot let COVID-19 threaten Connecticut’s democracy. No one should have to choose between their health and their vote,” Merrill wrote in a statement online.