Jerry Poole ended up voting twice — to make sure it was counted once.
In Tuesday’s primary election, he won’t be alone.
Poole was one of more than 9,000 New Haveners who requested an absentee ballot for Tuesday’s presidential primary. He had reason to wonder whether his vote would count: A state screw-up got him (and other voters throughout the state) his absentee ballot late. He popped it in the mail but couldn’t be sure it would arrive in time to be counted Tuesday night. .
So Poole was also one of 450 voters who showed up outside the 200 Orange St. Hall of Records government office building on Saturday to make sure.
The city clerk’s office will return to the 200 Orange sidewalk from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday to resume helping voters who are confused or uncertain about the fate of their absentee ballots, and to help some of them fill out a second ballot.
The outcome of the primary election is not at stake, at least not in New Haven. Tuesday’s Democratic and Republican primaries have only one race on the ballot in New Haven: For U.S. president. Both parties have in fact already settled on nominees, Joe Biden and Donald Trump. The ballot will include opponents who have dropped out of the race (on the Democratic side) or have no conceivable way of winning the nomination (Roque De La Fuente, on the Republican side). Officials still encourage people to vote, to make their preferences heard and exercise their Constitutional rights. (In parts of Hamden and the lower Naugatuck Valley, a truly contested race is on the ballot, for Democratic nomination for the 17th State Senate District seat.)
But much is still at stake in New Haven, and in Connecticut. Because the primary is seen as a trial run for the Nov. 3 general election, which will feature many contested races — and when Connecticut will try to run a viable election during a pandemic.
In Tuesday’s primary, as in the Nov. 3 general election, voters can simply show up at the polls between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. But they can also vote by absentee ballot in either election if they are concerned about contracting Covid-19, thanks to a gubernatorial executive order. So the state needs to be able to handle a flood of absentee ballots.
As Saturday’s event outside 200 Orange St. demonstrated, it’s not going well so far. Ballots have arrived late in the mail, or not at all. And people aren’t always clear how to return them properly.
Poole needed to fill out paperwork twice in order to cast his ballot.
That didn’t deter him. He said he felt the weight of two tragedies — the death of his 98-year-old mother, who lost her life to Covid-19, and the police killing of George Floyd — as he slid his second absentee ballot into a curbside box in front of the Hall of Records Saturday.
There was “no way in the world” he wasn’t going to vote, he said.
In fact, when he arrived at the absentee ballot assistance station outside 200 Orange St., he had already mailed in a ballot. He simply wanted to make sure his vote would go through, after hearing stories of a lagging postal service and mishandled absentee voting in other states during the pandemic.
Poole wasn’t alone in being worried about the fate of his vote. This election season, due to the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people across the state — more than 250,000 — have requested absentee ballots. In the weeks leading up to this coming Tuesday’s primary election, the state’s system of distributing absentee ballots was overloaded with requests, causing delays in the ballot-mailing process.
In response, the City Clerk’s office in New Haven set up the outdoor station on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. where voters could walk up and receive absentee applications and ballots to fill out at nearby tables, on the spot.
“There are approximately 9,000 people in the City that have requested absentee ballots for the Primary and because of an issue reported with the Secretary of State’s mailing house, many ballots have not yet arrived,” Mayor Justin Elicker wrote in an email to constituents on Friday. “We want to make sure everyone can vote.”
At the station, City Clerk Michael Smart assured Poole that if he mailed in an additional absentee ballot, his vote wouldn’t be double-counted. So Poole accepted a clipboard of materials and sat down at a table nearby to fill out his second ballot.
“I have a lot on my mind that brings me down here to vote,” Poole said. “This is the most important election of my lifetime.”
Poole was one of approximately 450 people who submitted a ballot at the station on Saturday. Anyone eligible to vote in New Haven could approach the City Clerk employees standing outside, show an ID, and receive both an application for an absentee ballot and a ballot itself. After filling out the materials, the voters could submit their ballots directly into a curbside bin. A similar absentee ballot station will take place on Monday outside the Hall of Records between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Smart said that his office is still receiving applications for absentee ballots; he estimated that around 100 new applications came in on Friday. His office is required to mail absentee ballots to those who have sent in applications, he said, regardless of whether it will be possible for the recipients to submit the ballots in time. At this stage, though, Smart recommends that voters who have not yet mailed absentee ballots drop their envelopes in the boxes outside of 200 Orange St.
The City Clerk’s office released a statement saying that Monday is the last day to obtain an absentee ballot. The staff will be out front all day to help.
Registered Democrats have the option of voting for Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or Tulsi Gabbard. (Gabbard and Sanders have dropped out of the race, but they remain on the ballot.) Registered Republicans have the option of voting for Donald Trump or Roque De La Fuente.
Kim Dirschka showed up to Saturday’s station because she applied for an absentee ballot, yet never received one. She wanted to vote because “I don’t know that we can last another four years” of Trump, she said.
Kathy Jones also never received an absentee ballot; she wondered if she might have applied too late. She heard about Saturday’s absentee ballot station after calling about her absent ballot. While she doesn’t feel completely comfortable going outside, she said, “I didn’t want to miss my opportunity.”
Anstress Farwell had mailed in her absentee ballot — only to receive it back in her mailbox. She discovered that she had accidentally folded the ballot the wrong way, so that the window of the envelope displayed her return address rather than the City Clerk’s address.
Farwell wasn’t the only one to make that error. Jeff Fuller emailed the Independent to report that he had needed to unseal, flip over, and re-seal the envelope containing his absentee ballot after discovering that the envelope’s window did not line up with the proper address. He called the potential for this error a “SERIOUS flaw in the mail-in process,” adding, “I also recommend that the Secretary of State, or local Clerks, take steps for the presidential election to remove the possibility of this flaw. I’d hate for my vote not to count.”
Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent came to cast a vote for Bernie Sanders, even though the presidential candidate had dropped out of the race. “In a two-party system, candidates don’t get support if they aren’t viewed as electable,” Rodriguez-Torrent said. He hoped that if enough people voted for Sanders in the primary, they would be able to communicate a message that candidates like Sanders can be electable in Connecticut.
Gerry Garcia, a small business counselor in the city’s Economic Development administration, came to submit his absentee ballot with his son, Daniel, who usually accompanies his parents when they go to vote.
Garcia, who staged a primary campaign for secretary of the state in 2010, praised the voting station. He said he hopes to see mail-in voting in future Connecticut elections.
“This should be the norm,” he said. “It shouldn’t take risking our lives to have this.”
Smart also said he hopes a similar early voting system will take place in elections to come. For now, he and his staff are working late nights to ensure that this election functions well, he said.
Plenty of other young voters stopped by to fill out ballots. Caleb and Sam Crumlish, twins who just turned 18 in July, came to vote in their first election, despite feeling as though their votes were merely symbolic after the Democratic candidates challenging Biden dropped out.
“It’s nice to get involved in the democratic process,” Caleb said — and to familiarize himself with the process of voting before November’s general election.
“I didn’t feel like I had much of an impact,” said Sam. But he was glad he voted anyway. “This whole time, I’ve been watching” politics happen, he said. “Now I have a say.”
Mikayla Davis, another first-time teen voter, filled out her absentee ballot on Saturday alongside her mom.
Her mom expressed a measure of skepticism about the in-person absentee voting system, having heard stories of voter suppression in other states. “I just hope that it all goes through,” she said.
What brought Davis out to vote amid a pandemic? “Change,” she answered immediately.
“Even if things don’t change,” she added, “at least I tried.”