Secretary of the State Denise Merrill this week proposed the state allow absentee voting without an excuse, and to adopt the practice of early voting, something many other states already have done.

Merrill announced Nov. 4 that she again will be proposing an amendment to the Connecticut Constitution that would allow Connecticut voters to choose to vote by absentee ballot without an excuse.

“Forty-four states currently allow their voters to conveniently vote prior to Election Day either through in-person early voting or no-excuse absentee balloting or both,” Merrill said. “Only Connecticut, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Mississippi, Kentucky and Missouri require their voters to vote in-person on Election Day unless they have a statutorily defined excuse,” Merrill said.

“As our local election officials are working hard to complete the counting of an historic number of absentee ballots, one result is absolutely clear – the voters of Connecticut want to be able to vote conveniently by absentee ballot without an excuse,” said Merrill. “... The availability of absentee ballots allowed more than 650,000 people to safely and conveniently cast their ballots, and helped to drive what will ultimately be among the highest turnout elections in Connecticut history. This election proved that, even under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, allowing Connecticut voters to choose to vote by absentee ballot can be a success, and voters are telling us that they want that option. I will be fighting to ensure that they have it.”

For town clerks and registrars, Election Day 2020 was unlike any other. Along with the challenge of using more absentee ballots to keep voters safe from COVID-19, municipal employees came to expect a larger voter turnout than they’d seen in years.

Allowing early voting is a good idea, but it will cost towns more money, said Winchester Town Clerk Sheila Sedlak.

“We have to keep up with what’s going on,” Sedlak said. “I support the idea. I do feel there are people who start their work day at 7 a.m. and they don’t get home until 9 p.m. (Early voting) is one more opportunity for them. People took a day off from work to vote Tuesday, I know that. So there will be an expense to do it, but I think it’s worth it, from the voter’s view.

“My goal is to see the people of Winsted have the opportunity to vote, whatever that takes,” she said.

Torrington City Clerk Carol Anderson said she has “mixed feelings” about the idea of early voting. This year, voters used absentee ballots to avoid going to a polling place, and clerks’ and registrars’ offices had to plan far ahead to handle the volume of ballots that were filed ahead of Nov. 3.

“I thought using the absentee ballots was actually not as difficult as I thought it was going to be,” Anderson said. “It does cost money to do early voting — more staffing, more planning.

“One of the things that concerns me about (early voting) is something that happened in Connecticut once. One of the candidates died before the election, so if you were a person who voted (by absentee), and you voted for that person, and they put someone else in that person’s place, what happens to those votes?” Anderson said.

“I’m on the fence,” she said. “Early voting would relieve us from the complications of absentee ballots, because there are so many reasons for using them — military, personal emergency, things like that. We’ll see how it plays out.”

Sedlak said Election Day went very well, considering the challenges she and her staff faced.

“Everyone worked, and we had great teamwork throughout the day. And the voters were tremendous,” she said. “There were sometimes two-hour wait times in line, but people were very patient and thanked everyone. They were very appreciative.

“There’s always the odd person that complains, but it was very minimal. People were willing to wait,” Sedlak said.

She said everyone working the elections were “in uncharted territory.” Every Monday, town clerks from around the state met on a conference call to discuss everything from absentee ballots to setting up the polling places with COVID-19 in mind.

“The executive orders for COVID-19 from the governor, but we were responsible for more than usual,” Sedlak said. “I think the state did a good job keeping us informed. We were all working with each other, and all communicating, so it was very helpful to get that feedback. If someone asked a question, or had a problem, we’d all get on it and talk it out, figure it out together.”

Anderson also participated in the weekly clerk meetings. “If you had a question, they answered it, but they didn’t always share the information with everyone else,” she said. “Sometimes, nobody would think to ask something, and then you’d worry about it later. Everything should have been shared universally. The state had an absentee ballot road map, but it didn’t have procedural information, so those little things got lost.”

Anderson said Torrington’s Election Day went well. “I felt it went smoothly because we worked really hard beforehand,” she said. “We planned ahead.”

Torrington Democratic Deputy Registrar of Voters Debra Whitten has been the city’s head moderator for counting absentee ballots for more than 20 years. This year, she and her staff counted 5,234 absentee ballots.

Whitten is not in favor of early voting because of the expense to the city.

“Hard times are falling on all our cities and towns,” she said. “We don’t have the manpower to do it. We’d have to do early voting at all eight polling places, and I just don’t see that happening. It takes a lot of money to set things up, we’d have to get new tabulating machines. ... I’m just not a fan of that idea at all.”

Whitten said handling so many absentee ballots was tough, “but we got through it.”

“If we continue to do it, we’ll get better, and get it done more accurately,” she said. “Those ballots are important. Everyone deserves to vote.”

On Nov. 3, Anderson and her staff and the registrars of voters moved their operations to Vogel Wetmore School and set up in the gym at 8 a.m. to begin processing absentee ballots. At one point during the day, a representative from the state visited the school to see what was happening.

“I guess they had about 90 people from the state who went around and checked on things, all day long,” Whitten said. They wanted to see how we were handling the absentee ballots. It was nice to know that someone cared enough to do that. I hope they do it again; it (would) be an asset to have them there.”

Winsted Registrar of Voters Barbara Braunstein hired four people to open the outer envelope of the absentee ballot and run the ballot through the scanner to have it counted.

“We had 13 rejected ballots,” she said. “But I’m thinking everything went pretty well, based on the fact that we had a lot of voters.

“Everyone was very patient,” Braunstein said. “It was kind of hectic in the morning because it was raining, and people had to wait, but they were very patient. A lot of people came by and thanked us.”

Connecticut Media Group