Cities scrambling to fix absentee ballot crisis, as residents aren't receiving them, or getting them late in process

Published on Wednesday, 5 August 2020 12:04
Written by Catherine Shen


NEW BRITAIN – Town clerks across the state learned late Monday that over 20,000 voters who requested absentee ballots haven’t received them due to a state mix-up and cities are scrambling to fix the crisis.

The absentee ballots were supposed to be mailed out July 21 and with a week before the state’s primary, town clerk offices are inundated with calls and working overtime to get the ballots sent out.

Mark Bernacki, New Britain town clerk, said the city received over 3,700 absentee ballot applications and only 25 actual ballots came back.

When cities receive the absentee ballot applications from residents, there are certain ways to process, review, categorize, sort and store the paperwork, he said. “Then we send it through a centralized system and it goes to a third-party mail house hired by the Secretary of the State’s Office, then they send out the actual ballots to voters,” he said. “But we found out that ballots were being mailed anywhere between July 27-31, which is extremely late, considering we have our state primary in a week.”

The city also discovered that out of the first batch of 3,400 applications, the mail house only sent out 3,000 ballots, which means it is up to the city to figure out who the remaining 400 are and get the ballots to them. Bernacki said they were not given a reason for the delay and the entire process has not been transparent.

“There has been a severe lack of communication between the state and the cities,” Bernacki said. “Because of that, we’re now back to doing it the old fashion way. We’re doing everything in house and sending the ballots directly to the voters.”

He strongly urges all voters who are receiving ballots now to drop them directly into the city’s ballot boxes rather than mailing them, which will help stop the delay.

Absentee ballot drop-off boxes are available outside of City Hall and the Town Clerk’s Office as a secure and contactless way to deliver ballots in the face of the pandemic.

Therese Pac, Bristol’s town and city clerk echoed the same sentiments and also encourages voters to drop off their ballots at the city’s drop-off boxes located outside of both the north and south entrances at City Hall.

“We started issuing the ballots internally on Friday so from now on, voters will be receiving ballots directly from my office,” Pac said. “Every town clerk was instructed to issue ballots through the state system and then the mail house would take care of all the ballots, but that obviously didn’t happen so we’re doing it all on our own.”

Bristol received roughly 4,800 absentee ballot applications for the upcoming primary, comparing it to the 2016 presidential primary at 303 applications, the difference is huge.

“Which makes it even more important that we make sure that all votes are counted,” said Pac, who pointed out that out of the 4,200 applications that went through the state system, only 71 ballots weren’t sent out.

But number only counts up to July 27, the city still has to issue out the ballots for any applications that comes through after July 27. “We are managing to keep our heads above water and we’re fortunate that our numbers are low compared to other towns,” she said. “But it’s frustrating when you have to do or redo work when it’s this kind of volume.”

Pac’s office has also been fielding phone calls left and right from residents. “There have been a lot of problems with the ballots sent by the mail house, some envelopes weren’t glued correctly and because the ballot looks different some people thought it might be fake,” she said.

The entire process was extraordinarily poorly planned, said Pac. “When you do something like this you need to vet it, ask people at the front end and process how it works. You don’t test it while it’s being done, especially during a pandemic. We’re the ones that are here in the offices that have to figure it out.”

While the cities continue to sort things out, both town clerks hopes residents will remain patient and know they will receive their ballots.

“I just want to remind people to act promptly and drop the ballots at the drop-off boxes,” Bernacki said. “We don’t want to disenfranchise voters and we want to make sure that every vote is counted. By mailing them now, you run the risk of not getting the ballots in by the end of primary day.”

Amy Gibbs, strategic communications specialist for the U.S. Postal Service, said it is the postal service’s policy to postmark ballots, regardless of the postage payment method.

“Customers who opt to vote through the U.S. Mail must understand their local jurisdiction’s requirements for timely submission of absentee ballots, including postmarking requirements,” she said. “The Postal Service also recommends the voters contact local election officials for information about deadlines.”

Outreach efforts have also been made by the postal service on its mailing requirements and services in advance of the 2020 elections, she said.

Posted in New Britain Herald, New Britain on Wednesday, 5 August 2020 12:04. Updated: Wednesday, 5 August 2020 12:07.