COVID-19 Shapes 2020 Election for Chester, Deep River, Essex Voters
Chester residents vote at Chester Town Hall, 203 Middlesex Avenue. )
Deep River residents vote at the Deep River Elementary School gymnasium, 2 River Street. )
Essex residents vote at Essex Town Hall, 29 West Avenue. )
Voter turnout for this year’s presidential election on Tuesday, Nov. 3 is being projected by state and local officials as being substantially larger than midterm elections, as in past elections. But election officials say that’s where the similarities to past elections end.
Two of the major differences this election include an option for all voters to vote by absentee ballot, due to the pandemic, and the potential for longer wait time on election returns, due to the increased number of absentee ballots being cast and the large turnout expected.
Whether eligible voters vote in person or by absentee ballot, Connecticut’s Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is emphasizing the importance of voting, even during the pandemic.
“Make sure whatever else happens, make sure you vote. Your vote is your voice. You have no other in our democracy,” she said in a video posting to the secretary of the state’s web page.
In response to reports of voter intimidation in other areas of the country, Merrill and the state’s top law enforcement officials also have asked local election officials in Connecticut to remain vigilant in protecting a citizen’s right to vote, free of intimidation.
Tallying the Vote
In anticipation of the time required to process the increased number of absentee ballots for this year’s election, the state’s new legislation extends time frames and deadlines by 48 hours for some election activities.
With an extra 48 hours to tally results (96 hours in total), this means the wait time for results could be extended to Saturday, Nov. 7 or the next business day, Monday, Nov. 9.
State legislation passed in a special session this summer expanded every citizen’s right to vote by absentee ballot because of COVID-19.
Election officials in Chester, Deep River, and Essex are reporting that many citizens have already placed their vote by absentee ballot. They are anticipating more to arrive by the deadline of 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.
As of Oct. 19, the Town of Essex had received three times the number of absentee ballots than in 2016, the last presidential election year.
“We have received more than 1,400 ballots and we hope to have approximately 2,100 absentee ballots to process this year,” said Essex Democratic Registrar of Voters Caitlin Riley
Riley is also the incumbent Democratic candidate for the position in this year’s election; she and Republican candidate Barbara Ryan will be elected.
Essex reported a total of 470 absentee ballots out of 4,184 total votes counted in the 2016 election. There are now 5,565 registered voters in Essex, according to Riley.
As of Oct. 19, in Deep River, over 900 absentee ballots have been issued and approximately 600 returned, according to Deep River Republican Registrars of Voters Dale Winchell and Democrat Lori Gregan, by email. Both are incumbent candidates in the election and will be re-elected.
Deep River reported a total of 182 absentee ballots out of 2,655 total votes counted in the 2016 election. There are more than 3,500 registered voters in Deep River, according to the 2019 voter registration statistics from the Secretary of the State’s Office.
In Chester, as of Oct. 14, there have been approximately 1,200 requests for absentee ballots and 800 have been returned, according to Chester Selectman Charlene Janecek.
Chester reported a total of 239 absentee ballots out of 2,321 total votes counted in the 2016 election. There are now slightly fewer than 2,800 citizens registered to vote in Chester, according to Janecek.
Any citizen who has not already received an absentee ballot application from the Connecticut Secretary of the State’s Office can request an application and ballot from the office of the town clerk in the town in which he or she resides, or by downloading it from myvote.ct.gov/absentee.
The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Nov. 2. In addition to putting a completed absentee ballot in the mail, an absentee ballot lockbox, where an individual can drop a completed ballot, is located outside town hall in each town.
All completed absentee ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.
Absentee ballots will not be accepted at polling locations, where in-person voting is available from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.
For Chester residents, the polling location is Chester Town Hall, 203 Middlesex Avenue.
For Deep River residents, the polling location is the Deep River Elementary School gymnasium, 12 River Street.
For Essex residents, the polling location is Essex Town Hall, 29 West Avenue.
For eligible individuals who need to register to vote on Election Day, Election Day Registration (EDR) is available at designated sites in Chester, Deep River and Essex. An I.D. card and proof of residency is required at these locations.
The EDR location in Chester is the second floor of Chester Town Hall, 203 Middlesex Avenue. In Deep River, the EDR location is the main floor of the Deep River Public Library at 150 Main Street. The EDR location in Essex is the second floor of Town Hall, 29 West Avenue.
Like in-person voting at polling locations, citizens must be in line at an EDR location by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3 to register and vote.
Although threats of voter intimidation have not been reported in Chester, Deep River, or Essex, as has been the case in some locations around the country, officials say that any violence, threat of violence, or other intimidation at the polls on election day will not be tolerated.
In a letter to all town clerks and registrars of voters on Oct. 15, the Secretary of the State’s Office outlined Connecticut and federal laws that protect “voters against intimidation.”
These laws “have strong protections for the fundamental right of Connecticut citizens to freely make their voices heard in our elections, and as election officials it is our duty to ensure that those votes are able to be cast without fear of intimidation or artificial, extralegal barriers,” the letter reads.
The secretary of the state said “every election official in Connecticut, from my office to poll workers in each town” needs to be “vigilant in protecting our citizens” from intimidation.
The letter also reminded local election officials that their jurisdiction to regulate partisan activity falls within the 75-foot restricted area and that any local ordinance or other state laws have jurisdiction beyond that area.
Deep River’s registrars of voters Winchell and Gregan said by email that voter intimidation isn’t something that has occurred in prior election years in town.
“We have never experienced this, but if we do, we will notify law enforcement,” said Winchell and Gregan.
In Chester, local town officials took action, after the primary in August, to prohibit electioneering by any political party in the parking spaces outside of Town Hall on Election Day.
The action was taken to help avoid any interference from car traffic. It was also taken in consideration for individuals entering the Town Hall building to vote who might feel uncomfortable walking past electioneers. The prohibition applies to the use of tents, tables, poll standing, or any activity besides parking in the spaces.
“If people do want to sit in a chair and hold a sign, or what have you, they certainly can do that, but they cannot do it in the parking lot,” said Chester First Selectman Lauren Gister. “There’s plenty of grassy areas where they can get away and not block traffic or cause any kind of safety issues.
“We don’t need any fender benders and we certainly don’t need to have a big traffic problem,” she added.
Registrar Riley said that the polls in Essex “will be well-staffed inside and outside of the building including social distancers and greeters to make sure everyone has the chance to vote safely and securely.”
To help alleviate any concerns related to intimidation and the safety of voters and elections officials, the Essex Board of Selectmen adopted a resolution on Oct. 21 stating that the Town Hall property at 29 West Avenue, which includes the Town Hall, a children’s playground, and tennis courts, is a firearm-free zone.
State grants have helped elections officials meet the extraordinary demands of this year’s election.
Funds through the state’s Absentee Ballot Support Grant and Safe Polls Grant have been distributed to Chester, Deep River, and Essex based on the number of registered voters and the projected voter turnout in each town.
Under the Absentee Ballot Support Grant, Chester received $1,465, Deep River received $1,720 and Essex received $2,850. Under the Safe Polls Grant, each town received $2,500.
Similar to most towns receiving these grants, Essex Registrar Riley said the funds “will help to defray some of the additional expenses we are incurring due to the pandemic” in terms of supplies such as personal protective equipment, single-use pens, and plexiglass shields for use on Election Day.
The funds will also be used for additional poll workers responsible for processing absentee ballots.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Deep River's polling place, Deep River Elecmentary School, at 2 River Road; it is at 12 River Road.