Officials Visit West Hartford to Discuss Safe Voting, COVID Rate Jumps to 4.1%

Gov. Ned Lamont speaks about the election and COVID-19 Tuesday next to the ballot drop boxes outside West Hartford Town Hall. In the background are Secretary of State Denise Merrill (left) and West Hartford Town Clerk Essie Labrot. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Gov. Ned Lamont, Secretary of State Denise Merrill, and Acting Commissioner of the Department of Public Health Deidre Gifford joined Mayor Shari Cantor and other state and local officials in West Hartford Tuesday.

West Hartford Town Hall, and the two election drop boxes, served as the backdrop for a press conference Tuesday. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

Protocols are in place to ensure the safety and integrity of voting in Connecticut, officials said, on a day when Connecticut’s COVID-19 infection rate spiked to 4.1%, the highest rate the state has seen since early June.

Gov. Ned Lamont shared the news Tuesday at noon press conference in West Hartford intended to focus on voting, and said the increase was “not unexpected but it still wakes you up like a cold shower.”

There were 538 new positive cases, out of a total of 13,039 tests administered, Lamont said. There are 22 additional COVID-19 patients hospitalized, bringing the total to 292, and six additional COVID-related deaths were reported Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to 4,595.

Nationwide, cases reached an all-time high this week, Lamont said. “This is a trend that’s going on and we are watching it very, very carefully,” he said.

“We have to be so cautious. I know everybody’s exhausted saying this and I know we’ve got a vote coming up and I know we have thousands of kids coming back from college but this is a really important month for us to get it right,” Lamont said.

West Hartford had 14 new positive cases reported Tuesday, and over the past four days has had 52 new COVID-19 cases.

Aimee Krauss, director of the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District told We-Ha.com that “social gatherings and positive cases within a household” are some of the reasons, and increased testing is also resulting in more positive cases being identified.

“The Health District has been working with our testing locations on reminding residents to quarantine until they receive test results. Even if a person is asymptomatic they should not be attending social gatherings and parties until they get results,” Krauss said.

Standing next to the election drop boxes in front of West Hartford Town Hall, the governor and other officials issued a reminder about voting deadlines and the safety of the voting process.

Other than Election Day registration, Tuesday is the last day to register to vote in Connecticut before the Nov. 3 election.

“Register to vote if you aren’t already registered, and if you are registered make a plan to vote. This is critical,” West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor said.

Mayor Shari Cantor speaks at a press conference at West Hartford Town Hall Tuesday. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Throughout the press conference, residents – some of whom looked shocked to see the governor and other officials standing there – continued to arrive to deposit their absentee ballots in the drop boxes.

In addition to the two drop boxes at Town Hall, West Hartford has a drop box in the parking lot at the Faxon Library on New Britain Avenue in Elmwood.

“If you decide to go to the polls … you will hear how safe it is to go to the polls in person,” Cantor said.

West Hartford Town Clerk Essie Labrot said that nearly 20,000 absentee ballots have been processed thus far – second only to the City of Stamford. “So far we’ve received over 15,000 returned,” she said, and the town usually has about a 90% return rate on absentee ballots so she expects more to arrive in the next several days.

West Hartford Town Clerk Essie Labrot. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Labrot encourages everyone to use the drop boxes rather than the mail, particularly for those who are still applying for ballots. The boxes are emptied multiple times a day and ballot applications are generally processed within 24 hours, she said.

Absentee ballots must arrive via mail or be deposited in one of the election drop boxes by 8 p.m. on Election Day in order to count.

Acting Commissioner of the Department of Public Health Dr. Deidre Gifford said she was attending a press conference about voting “to let everyone know if you are not able to vote in advance … we’ve been working very hard to make in-person voting safe this year.”

She encouraged people to vote mid-day, when it is least likely to be crowded, and said to anyone who is not feeling well or has been exposed to COVID-19: “Please don’t come to the polls on that day.”

Protocols at the polls will include 6-foot distancing, wearing of masks, and the availability of hand sanitizer.

Gifford expressed her thanks to those who have stepped up to be poll workers, and all who are involved with “making voting during a pandemic as safe as it can be for the residents of Connecticut.”

Dr. Deidre Gifford, acting commissioner of the Department of Public Health, spoke at a press conference in West Hartford Tuesday. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Lamont said the legislature’s push to expand the use of absentee balloting was very far-sighted, to ensure that seniors and anyone with health conditions could vote early.

“It’s so important that we maintain all the social distancing, the wearing the mask, when you come to vote. … Or drop it off at one of the official ballot boxes,” Lamont said.

“Along with public health and safety it’s important that we give you confidence …” Lamont said – interrupting his comments to thank someone who was dropping their ballot in the box – “… give you confidence that your vote counts and this is a process with integrity.”

Gov. Ned Lamont interrupted his comments at a press conference in West Hartford Tuesday to thank a voter for dropping off her absentee ballot. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

It will take some time to get all of the votes counted, the governor said, but the numbers will be out as soon as they can, “with integrity.”

Lamont also noted the enthusiasm for voting this year, and said that may be due to a stark contrast between the two presidential candidates on the ballot.

“Often by the last week of a campaign, the two candidates start blending into a muted shade of gray,” Lamont said. “I think you’ve got a black and white contrast and I think that’s going to bring out an awful lot of voters and I think that’s good. Even in this pandemic, I love the fact that people know a vote matters.”

West Hartford legislators voiced their support for the expansion of absentee ballot voting this year.

“Pre-pandemic, Connecticut was one of only eight states in the country with no form of early voting,” State Sen. Derek Slap (D-5th) said. He said it’s his hope that the work the legislature did to expand absentee ballot voting “is the beginning of more robust voting reform in the state.”

State Sen. Derek Slap. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

State Rep. Jillian Gilchrest (D-18th) added that watching just the small number of people come up to vote by absentee ballot during the press conference was very powerful. “Going forward we will work to ensure that we can expand voting rights in Connecticut. We know that it’s long overdue and that people want to be able to exercise that vote sooner rather than later.”

State Rep. Jillian Gilchrest. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“I just love watching people come up to put their ballots in the boxes. It’s like the realization of all the planning we have done for months and months now,” Secretary of State Denise Merrill said.

Merrill said that as of Tuesday, Connecticut has an all-time high of 2,295,644 active registered voters, and many new registrants are between the ages of 18 and 24. “We’re having a surge of new voters like we have not seen in the past,” she said.

There have been 673,811 absentee ballots requested – and she anticipates that number may end up being close to 700,000. Nearly 500,000 have already been returned, she said.

“If you’re voting by absentee ballot, your vote is secure, especially if you’re dropping it in these wonderful ballot boxes,” she said. The boxes were possible due to a federal grant, Merrill said.

Secretary of State Denise Merrill. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Sue Larsen, president of the Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut, reviewed many of the protocols that will be in place at polling locations – including PPE kits for poll workers with masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.

She said polling places will also provide masks to voters who don’t have them, and many polling places will have one-time use disposable pens available. Cleaning of all surfaces will be done regularly.

In response to a reporter’s question, Merrill said that by law “we cannot refuse anyone their right to vote,” and while the wearing of masks is strongly encouraged, it cannot be required.

“If they are absolutely insistent that they cannot or will not wear a mask, we will make some accommodation,” she said, whether it is sequestering the individual into a separate room, or at least a separate area, or having them complete their ballot outdoors accompanied by an official. Those who do not wear masks are also being encouraged to vote by absentee ballot.

State Sen. Mary Abrams (D-13th) as well as state Sen. Mae Flexer (D-29th) – whose infant daughter was attending her first press conference – also addressed the crowd.

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