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‘Down to the Wire’: Absentee Ballot Voting Tips from West Hartford’s Town Clerk

West Hartford Town Clerk Essie Labrot holds an absentee ballot envelope inside the vault at Town Hall. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford Town Clerk Essie Labrot has sent out more than 17,000 absentee ballots for the November election.

West Hartford Town Clerk Essie Labrot stands in a conference room at Town Hall where the ballots and applications received that day are initially sorted. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

Election Day is less than three weeks away, but the Town Clerk’s Office inside West Hartford Town Hall has been buzzing with election-related activity for the past few months – activity that will certainly intensify as the Nov. 3 election nears.

“We’re getting down to the wire,” West Hartford Town Clerk Essie Labrot said this week, as she offered some tips to ensure that those voting by absentee ballot have their votes counted.

The term “office” is actually a misnomer for the current operation, because the process of handling the absentee ballots has expanded to multiple spaces within Town Hall, keeping the tasks separate and also ensuring physical distancing of those who are working.

As of Tuesday evening, Labrot said she had received applications for and sent out 17,329 absentee ballots to West Hartford voters.

The ballots were able to be sent out beginning Oct. 2 – and more than 15,000 were sent out that day – and since then Labrot said the applications continue to arrive. Ballots are sent out within 48 hours of receipt of an application, she said.

Applications were sent to all registered voters in Connecticut via the Secretary of State’s Office in September, including just over 41,000 registered voters in West Hartford.

Roughly 8,330 ballots have already been returned as of Tuesday evening.

In September alone, the Town Clerk’s Office fielded more than 4,700 phone calls, mostly about voting.

A majority of the questions people have can be answered by looking at the Town Clerk’s website, which can be much more efficient than calling. There are FAQs, and a video about the 2020 voting process, including what to expect if you vote in person. Sending an email to [email protected] is also an efficient way to have your questions addressed.

More information can also be found here.

Absentee ballots and applications are kept separated by district. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Absentee ballot voting advice

Labrot also offered some important advice:

  • If you sent in an application for an absentee ballot and don’t receive your ballot in a week, download and print out a new application and send it in.

Labrot said she received an application Tuesday that was signed and dated Sept. 21, and postmarked Oct. 9. The resident told Labrot that the application had been dropped off at a post office.

  • If you are in town, use one of the drop boxes, Labrot said. That advice goes for submitting applications as well as your completed ballot. There are three: two in front of Town Hall, and one in the parking lot of the Faxon Library in Elmwood.

“We are turning them over within 48 hours,” Labrot said.

The status of your ballot can also be tracked at myvotect.gov/lookup.

  • Follow all directions carefully. Failure to do so may result in your ballot being rejected.

“You must use the outer envelope even if you are putting your ballot in the drop box,” Labrot said. The outer envelope contains a serial number and the voter name and address, and that information is critical for the tracking process.

The ballot must be placed in the inner envelope, and that must be signed.

Applications must have an original signature as well (no signing for your spouse or child), but can be grouped in the same envelope. Ballots all must be in their own envelope.

“People have been really good about following the directions,” Labrot said, but she has received a few ballots that are missing the outer envelope, and some are missing the inner envelope as well.

  • If you have applied for and received your absentee ballot, you CAN still go to the polls on Election Day, IF you have not returned the ballot.

“If people want to hold onto their ballot, to see what the weather looks like, the COVID situation,” Labrot said, that’s fine.

She does suggest that those who decide they want to vote by absentee ballot drop off their completed ballot by Oct. 28.

The voter rolls will be printed out before Election Day, and voters for whom absentee ballots have been received will have an “A” next to their name, to prevent them from voting at the polls.

Voters technically have until 8 p.m. on Election Day to get their absentee ballots submitted, but Labrot said that for this election, those ballots dropped off on Nov. 3 won’t actually be opened and counted until the next day, when they will be cross-checked against the list of those who voted in person.

  • Only deposit West Hartford applications and West Hartford ballots in the West Hartford drop box.

Voters who are submitting their applications or ballots from out of town need to use the mail if they are not going to be in West Hartford.

Labrot also asked that college students who plan to vote by absentee ballot be specific about their address on an application to ensure that the college postal service is able to get them their ballot on time.

  • Applications should be mailed in by Oct. 26, at the very latest.

Use the drop box rather than the mail if at all possible, especially as we get closer to Election Day, Labrot advised. The boxes are emptied twice a day.

There really should not be any reason to wait to submit an application since it doesn’t impact your ability to vote at the polls, and the very latest applications should be submitted is Oct. 26 to ensure that a ballot can be received and returned to Town Hall by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. Ballots received after 8 p.m. on Nov. 3 will not be accepted.

What happens after I submit my absentee ballot application?

Boxes of absentee ballot packets are kept in a vault at Town Hall, and are sent out within 48 hours of receipt of an application. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The process of receiving absentee ballot applications, recording them, sending out ballots, and receiving the ballots is a multi-step procedure, with multiple checks and balances.

Staff – some of whom are temporary employees hired for the absentee ballot voting process – open the applications, stamp them, and sort them by district.

The automatically-generated applications – the ones that came from the Secretary of State’s mailing – come with bar codes, which streamline the process because they can be scanned.

Each application is input into the Connecticut Voter Registration System, and two labels – one for the inner and another for the outer envelope – are generated which are then affixed as part of the ballot package.

When absentee ballot applications are received, they are all input into the Connecticut Voter Registration System, and two labels are generated for the ballot packet. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford has nine districts, and they are tracked separately. For the November election, which includes candidates for the 18th, 19th, and 20th General Assembly Districts and the 5th state Senate District, there are three different ballots.

The ballots are sent out within 48 hours of receipt of an application.

“More people, maybe 70%, are using the drop boxes,” Labrot said.

When the ballots are returned, they are scanned. The count of scanned ballots must match the physical count of ballots, or the process has to be repeated, Labrot said.

Labrot purchased a high-speed envelope opener this year which is used for the applications (even the outer envelope of ballots can’t be opened until the Friday before Election Day at the earliest), but otherwise the process is largely manual.

There have been cases where a voter has moved in between applying for a ballot and sending that ballot, and those cases require manual intervention, Labrot said. “It’s a fluid voter registration database.”

The ballots are kept locked inside a vault at Town Hall.

“The vault already has more than 8,000 returned ballots,” Labrot said.

Absentee ballots that have been received are kept in a vault at West Hartford Town Hall until they are ready to be transferred to the Registrars of Voters for the counting process to begin. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

West Hartford has the second-most number of applications received at this point, Labrot said, with only Stamford – which has 30,000 more registered voters – ahead in requests.

“We tend to have about a 90% return on absentee ballots,” Labrot said, but this year she expects that many people are likely to request a ballot and then decide to vote in person.

With so many voting by absentee ballot in this election, she doesn’t expect the polls to be too busy.

In the November 2016 presidential election, a total of 33,984 votes were cast in West Hartford, and of those 4,221 were by absentee ballot.

A total of 10,503 votes were cast in the Republican and Democratic primaries in August 2020, and of those, a total of 7,616 were by absentee ballot.

The Registrars of Voters and their staff are able verify the number of ballots received from the Town Clerk, and will generate the voter lists that are used at the polls, and an “A” will be beside the names of voters who have sent in their ballots.

The opening of the outer envelopes for pre-counting can’t begin until the Friday before Election Day at the earliest, and the opening of the inner envelopes and tabulating of the ballots won’t begin until 6 a.m. on Election Day.

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