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Clerks: While historic, absentee ballots short of forecast

FILE - In this Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, file photo, Town Clerk Barbara Thompson gets ready to bring nearly 7,000 absentee ballots to the post office from Wallingford Town Hall, in Wallingford, Conn. While town clerks across Connecticut have so far received roughly 450,000 more absentee ballots than they did in the 2016 presidential election, hundreds of thousands of residents are still expected to go to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 3, despite the pandemic. (Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP, File)

By SUSAN HAIGH Associated Press

While town clerks across Connecticut have so far received roughly 460,000 more absentee ballots than they did in the 2016 presidential election, hundreds of thousands of residents are still expected to go to the polls on Tuesday, despite the pandemic.

The Connecticut Town Clerks Association had prepared for as many as 66% of the state’s more than 2.3 million eligible voters casting their ballots by absentee in this year’s presidential election, now that COVID-19 is an allowable excuse this year. But as of Sunday nearly 26% had done so.

“It is less than we thought. I think a lot of voters are opting to go to the polls. Probably much to do with the messages, the mixed messages they’re getting out there about the election,” said Anna Posniak, the association’s president and the Windsor town clerk. “So I think there’s a comfort level for many people to go to the polls, to have the ballot in their hand and to watch it go into the tabulator.”

Posniak said the clerks arrived at the 66% figure after taking into account voter turnout for the Aug. 11 primary and unaffiliated and minor party voters, as well as recommendations from the Secretary of the State’s Office as to how many ballots they should be ordering in this unprecedented situation.

For the first time in a Connecticut general election, Democratic Secretary of the State Denise Merrill sent out applications for absentee ballots this year to all eligible voters. She and other election officials urged voters to request one so they could have a backup plan in case they couldn’t make it to the polls in person, given the pandemic.

As of Sunday, state records showed nearly 84% of the 706,374 voters who requested an absentee ballot have filled them out and sent them back to the clerks. Democrats have the highest return rate so far, at nearly 86%, compared with 83% for Republicans and 81.4% for unaffiliated voters, according to the nonpartisan U.S. Elections Project. Nationally, at least 35 million “mail ballots” in battleground states around the U.S. had not yet been returned or accepted as of early Wednesday, according to data collected by The Associated Press.

While the return rate in some communities is lower than the state average, such as 74% in Bridgeport, the most populous city and a key vote-getter for Democrats, leaders of both the state’s Democratic and Republican parties said they believe voters will likely instead go to the polls, where various social distancing and safety measures are being implemented.

“It doesn’t concern me,” said Nancy DiNardo, the state Democratic Party chairwoman, when asked about locations with lower return rates. “We have always been considered a blue state. So I think if you look at the number that have been processed but haven’t been returned, I would say a lot of those people will probably be coming out on Election Day and voting. I think they just wanted to have (the ballot).”

J.R. Romano, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said he always thought more Republicans than Democrats would opt for voting in person at the polls. Of the 591,293 absentee ballots returned to the clerks as of Sunday, 91,772 were from Republicans, while 287,565 were from Democrats, 203,470 from unaffiliated voters and 8,486 from minor party members.

“Based on the primary, we already know Democrats are tending to vote by mail with COVID and Republicans are voting in person,” said Romano, noting that many in the GOP voiced concern about the new expanded absentee voting this year in Connecticut, a state that traditionally has strictly limited when someone could do so.

“I think people are just feeling safer going and voting in person in regards to making sure their vote counts,” he said. “And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Posniak said city and town clerks have benefited somewhat from the relatively smaller than predicted number of absentee ballot requests, noting they are still extremely busy and have been inputting information into the state voter system, which has been stressed by the sheer volume of activity. There has been a record-breaking number of new voter registrations this year, with more than 700,000 recorded since 2016. That’s compared to 450,000 between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections and 250,000 between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Merrill said young voters in particular have registered to vote in greater numbers than in previous cycles.

Meanwhile, those Connecticut voters who still plan to use their absentee ballot are being urged to forgo the U.S. mail and instead deposit them in the drop boxes set up in all 169 cities and towns by 8 p.m. Tuesday, but not bring them to the polling places.

“The post office has indicated that voters should leave at least a week for mail, so at this point using the drop boxes is the best way for voters to return their absentee ballots,” said Gabe Rosenberg, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office.