‘The Election Will Go On:' State Officials Look for Ways to Let People Vote Safely Amidst COVID-19 Crisis

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Safe, secure, and accessible: Secretary of the State Denise Merrill says those are the guiding principles behind her new plan for the presidential and state primaries this August.

“I really feel the coronavirus is not only threatening our health, it’s threatening our democracy,” said Merrill on Monday.

The federal government has given Connecticut $5.4 million to cover the added cost of keeping this election cycle safe.  However, in order to receive those funds, each municipality will have to submit a Safe Polls Plan to Merrill’s office, detailing a list of polling locations, staffing levels, and even the cleaning and safety products they’ll use.

“I was happy to see there was a push by the secretary of the state to ensure that there will be in-person voting.  I think that’s important to the process,” said Rep. Jason Perillo (R-Shelton).

While there’s money to hire additional poll workers, finding those willing to work is a top concern of local officials.

“A lot of those employees who work at polling locations are elderly, they do this more of a love for democracy than for the money.  Frankly, people may just say I don’t want to do it.  I’m scared. I don’t want to get sick,” said Mayor Mark Boughton (R-Danbury).

“You don’t want to have your more vulnerable citizens in contact with a lot of people,” added Mayor Curt Leng (D-Hamden)

“The state also received $10 million in federal funds to increase cybersecurity. The Connecticut National Guard will perform a high-level assessment of the election infrastructure of each of Connecticut's 169 towns.

“It’s really a balancing act because you’re trying to work to make sure people can vote while protecting the process itself which is very sacred,” said Leng, adding that Hamden’s school district and municipal offices have been hit by cyberattacks multiple times.

Federal funding will be used to mail an absentee ballot application to every registered voter in the state for both the primary in August and the general election in November.

Perillo, who sits on the legislative committee that oversees elections, said that raises a different concern.

“Anytime you have absentee balloting mail-in balloting, the risk of fraud goes up,” he said. “The risks of a very expanded mail-in voting process are significant.”

The state statute that governs who can vote absentee hasn’t changed.   Mail-in ballots are for people who will be absent or too sick to vote in person. However, officials admit there’s really no way to check.

“The truth is, no we do not have the absentee ballot police,” said Merrill.

Merrill added that there are many checks and balances to ensure the integrity of the vote. Because of that, Merrill said funds will be used to hire more election workers.

In a typical election, Merrill said six to eight percent of voters mail in their ballots.  This isn’t a typical election year.

“There are going to be more people asking for absentee ballots,” she said.

Municipalities are also being encouraged to make plans for social distancing at the ballot box and avoid long lines outside polling places. 

“That’s our challenge.  I don’t know if we can manage it, but we’re going to try,” she said.

That may not the only big “if” this election cycle.

“I’m not so sure that the August primary’s going to happen.  In fact, if I were a betting man I would bet that it probably doesn’t,” said Boughton.

“I think that you have to have the primary but I can’t tell you that I know how,” Leng stated.

Gov. Ned Lamont would have to issue an executive order to cancel the primary, which he hasn’t indicated he’s willing to do.  The date of the primary was moved, first from April to June, and then to August, the same day as the state primary instead.

Without an executive order, the only way the August primary gets canceled is if the candidates remove themselves from the ballot leaving just one candidate for each party.  Currently, there are three Democrats and two Republicans left on the presidential primary ballots.

“We have heard from all three candidates in writing, all three have said multiple times actually even when we reach out to them, that they wish to remain on the ballot,” said Merrill of the three candidates challenging presumptive nominees President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Candidates for state races won’t be determined until after the district conventions at the end of the month.  Those who don’t make it onto the ballot can also petition their way on at the beginning of June.

“Those candidates should look at themselves and say do I really want to risk bringing senior citizens out to vote because I lost my caucus and I lost my convention,” said Boughton.

Strategies to get out the vote will also be different this year.

“No longer are people going to come to your door,” Boughton pointed out. “You’re going to see campaigns that are going to be hustling for these absentee ballots that are going to be urging people to vote now before the election day so they can get a better sense of where they are before election day.”

“In our social media worlds there’s going to some people that have more contact with the candidates and a lot of people that will have less,” Leng added.

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