Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie
From left to right: New Britain City and Town Clerk Mark Bernacki, New Britain Republican Registrar Peter Gustin and New Britain Democratic Registrar Lucian Pawlak with boxes of absentee ballots to be processed for the Nov. 3 election. (Lisa Backus / ctnewsjunkie)

NEW BRITAIN, CT — New Britain Town and City Clerk Mark Bernacki likened the amount of work needed to process 7,300 requests for absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election to “taking a shower in Niagara Falls.”

“We’ve been handling 7,000 pieces of paper three or four times between processing the applications, generating mailing labels for the ballots and then dealing with the returns,” Bernacki said.

As of mid-day Friday, about 6,000 of those absentee ballots had been returned, according to New Britain Democratic Registrar of Voters Lucian Pawlak. “We’re anticipating about six fold of what we did in the last presidential election,” Pawlak said.

About 62% of New Britain residents voted in the last Presidential election in 2016, Pawlak said. He’s expecting this year’s numbers to top 70%, including an estimated 1,000 people who will register on Nov. 3 at New Britain City Hall.

Bernacki handed over 5,988 absentee ballots to Pawlak and Republican Registrar Peter Gustin Saturday morning so that a crew could begin the process of opening the outer envelope in accordance with a new law passed during a special legislative session in September.

The law was drafted in anticipation of the volume of absentee ballots expected to be processed throughout the state due to the presidential election falling during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the law, for the first time ever, as of 5 p.m. Friday registrars throughout the state can open the outer envelope and check the signature of the voter prior to Election Day if they notify and receive the approval of Secretary of State Denise Merrill in advance.

Gov. Ned Lamont also issued an executive order this week extending the deadline to seek Merrill’s approval for those registrars who had failed to do so by Oct. 30.

“Normally during a presidential election we would process about 1,100,” Gustin said. “But because of COVID (the disease caused by the coronavirus) and the fact that everyone was mailed an application we are going to do about six times that.”

Bernacki started out Saturday morning training the 12-member crew who will be dealing with the absentee ballots to make sure that they knew what military and overseas ballots looked like since they are returned on thicker paper than other ballots.

In order for his office to hand over the absentee ballots to Pawlak and Gustin, each one had to be separated by the 17 voting districts in New Britain and then counted to verify that Bernacki had turned over the correct amount of ballots.

In accordance with the new law, the team will check signatures once the outer envelopes have been opened, with ballots that have not been properly signed but aside.

Every absentee ballot will be checked for the proper signature before it is placed in a voting machine to be counted, Pawlak said.

It will likely take about two hours to open the nearly 6,000 ballots with a mechanical letter opener, Pawlak said. Gustin said he expected to have people checking signatures until about 3 p.m. Saturday.

“We’ll check the person off that we have received their ballot,” Gustin said. “This will continue through Monday and I’m sure we’ll get more in even on Tuesday. Hopefully we can just open the inner envelope and process them all on Election Day.”