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Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and presidential election, voters have questions about how to participate in our democratic process. This week, the Hartford-based Epsilon Omicron Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority held a virtual question-and-answer session with Secretary of the State Denise Merrill to answer some of them.

Participants submitted questions for Merrill via Facebook and Zoom, and members of the sorority also participated.

What is the process for the absentee ballot? How does one submit? What is the application? What are the deadlines?

Merrill said there have been a lot of rumors about absentee ballots circulating. She emphasized that the applications she mailed out to every registered voter were not ballots.

“This is not a ballot,” Merrill said. “It is an application because Connecticut has very extensive checks and balances for ballots. No one should be worried their ballot won’t be counted because there is going to be some sort of fraud out there. It’s just not the case.”

Merrill said that as of now, every registered voter should have an application for the absentee ballot for the August 11 primaries. Voters can choose to vote in person, or check off a reason for requesting an absentee ballot. What is different this year is one of the valid reasons to vote absentee is COVID-19, because of an executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont.

“If you want to use that application to get an absentee ballot, check that top box,” Merrill said. “It says something like ‘I am worried about COVID.’ And you send it to your town hall.”

The envelope is self-addressed and stamped so it can easily be sent to the town clerk. Some towns, like Bloomfield, have drop boxes for the ballots.

Merrill reassured the panel that if you submit an absentee ballot, you are checked off a list so you cannot also vote in person.

“No one is voting twice,” Merrill said.

You shouldn’t expect a ballot to arrive in the mail until after July 21, according to Merrill. However, the ballot must be mailed back early enough to be at the town offices by Election Day.

“If you really want to be sure your vote gets there, I would put it in the ballot box at town hall,” Merrill said.

In 2018, women turned out in record numbers and ran for office in higher numbers than ever before in Connecticut. We witnessed the historic election of Congresswoman Jahanna Hayes and countless women elected at the state and local level. Can you speak to the state of women’s political leadership in Connecticut? What needs to happen in your mind to encourage more women of color to run for office? What is your office doing to ensure candidates of color, LGBTQx candidates and candidates with disabilities get a fair fight?

Before the pandemic hit, Merrill said she felt confident that 2020, the 100th anniversary of the constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote, would be an election cycle focused on women’s participation in democracy.

“I thought I knew what was happening and then along came COVID,” Merrill said. “My focus has to be on allowing everyone to vote without a problem and fear of their health and that has to be the focus right now.”

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She said that she wished she could say that Connecticut was ahead on the issue, but noted that Connecticut has fewer opportunities to vote than any other state. While women’s participation is important to her personally, Merrill’s focus is ensuring everyone can vote safely.

Merrill pointed out that when women run for office they tend to win. She said that a series of campaign training classes has helped to boost the number of women and women of color running for office.

You said in your voting plan that no one should have to choose between safety and their right to vote. Can you talk a little about your plan and your office and what steps they will take to protect voters if they go to vote in person and what they might expect?

The safe polls plan will include the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the poll workers in every town in the state, according to Merrill. One problem the state faces is that most poll workers are seniors, and therefore at higher risk for infection.

“We are trying to recruit poll workers for all the towns,” Merrill said. “We are doing that through our website because we are very concerned that towns might want to collapse polling places as we have seen in other states.”

Merrill said the state has the money to prioritize having a large number of polling places that are staffed in case people do not want to vote by mail.

“We will pay 100% of those costs for all the towns,” Merrill said. “Each town has to present their plan for us for how they will spend the money and what their needs are and we will provide cleaning of the polling place before and after and also the PPE.”

A UConn Storrs undergraduate expressed concerns about students all having to cast their vote at one location. The line is so long that students often have to leave after one hour due to their class schedules. Will there be another location for students or did they also receive absentee ballots?

Everyone who was a registered voter received an application for an absentee ballot to vote in the August primary, according to Merrill. Merrill is concerned that some students might not be living on campus this year and may have to re-register at home.

In order to do so, students must go to the online voter registration site and register in their hometown.

“They all got an application,” Merrill said. “They have to send that application back but they also might have to re-register in a different place.”

Is there a plan for continuing this for the general election?

Merrill called this the ‘64-million-dollar question’ because the COVID-19 excuse for the absentee ballot only lasts as long as Lamont’s executive order, which expires in September.  It does not extend to the fall election.

“We are still in regular mode unless the legislature acts,” Merrill said. “I have every reason to believe that they will modify the statute to do exactly what the governor did — to extend it by special act.”

Editor’s note: Addressing absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election is one of the four issues legislative leaders subsequently agreed to take up in a special session.