An absentee ballot envelope for West Hartford.
An absentee ballot envelope for West Hartford. Credit: File / CTNewsJunkie
Susan Bigelow head shot
SUSAN BIGELOW

This summer, as the delta variant of COVID-19 began ravaging Connecticut, the legislature approved a bill that would make it legal for voters to choose the pandemic as their reason for voting absentee in the fall municipal election. In short, just like last year, everyone can vote by mail if they so choose. 

This is fantastic news, and you should take advantage of it if you can. There are tons of great reasons to vote by mail in this year’s local elections.

Since I’m a political dork, I plan my whole year around Election Day. I realize that this is not how everyone thinks, however. When elections aren’t big news, as is the case when a president or a governor isn’t being chosen, most voters tend to forget about them. That’s one reason why town and city elections have abysmally low turnout.

But it’s worth caring about municipal elections, because there’s a lot more at stake than just garbage pickup. Though, man, that’s pretty important. Can you imagine how life in most towns and cities would be if the garbage truck didn’t come? That’s how a lot of municipal services work; they’re these complicated and time-intensive systems that fade completely into the background when we’re not thinking about them. I mean, have you thought about the sewers lately?

Local services like garbage, sewers, parks, fire departments, libraries, schools, and non-state roads are all the responsibility of the town or city. All of these are systems and organizations that developed over a long period of time, and a lot of work goes into them. Just because sometimes local government feels invisible doesn’t mean it’s not there, doing the quiet and necessary work of keeping everything running.  

There are four basic forms of local government in Connecticut, and each one has important elected components that are up for a vote this November.

The selectmen/town meeting form of government is the state’s oldest, and it’s still used in many places. Most of the towns that have this system are smaller and more rural. Voters here choose candidates for different boards, such as the board of selectmen, which is the town’s legislative arm and leadership, as well as the boards of education and finance. Some decisions of the boards in these towns, such as the town budget, are ratified by town meetings at other points in the year.

The council/manager form is a type of local government where the actual functions of government are run by a professional town manager, who then reports to the elected town council. The town manager functions like the CEO of a company reporting to a board of directors (in Manchester, the city council is actually called the board of directors). In some towns there’s a mayor who is elected separately, while in others the mayor is simply the leader of the party that controls the town council. The powers of the mayor are very limited, however, beyond the functions of the council.

Representative town meetings are a variant of the selectmen/town meeting and the council/manager forms of government, and they’re more common in coastal towns. In this type of government there is either a town council or a board of selectmen that must work with an elected representative town meeting (RTM). The RTM is elected in local districts and can sometimes be quite large; Greenwich’s RTM, for example, has a whopping 230 members. The RTM’s powers vary, but they are usually able to initiate and pass ordinances, approve budgets, and weigh in on decisions of the selectmen or the town council.

Lastly, mayor/council or strong mayor forms of government have an elected mayor who is the head of both the council and the government, and who has broad powers of hiring and firing, agenda setting, vetoing of council legislation, and more. This is a system much more like that of the state and the federal government, and is much more common in larger towns and cities.

That’s what’s at stake in November. So why vote absentee?

This country doesn’t make it easy to vote, and Connecticut makes it harder still. There’s no early voting here, and in normal years anyone requesting an absentee ballot had to have a good excuse, such as being out of town or unable to go to a polling place because of illness or disability. The fact that we can actually request ballots without having to provide that kind of excuse is liberating. Hopefully, we’ll be able to approve a constitutional amendment that will let us vote by mail whenever we like in the near future, but for now we should jump at the chance to exercise a right we don’t often have.

Plus, it’s easy to vote by mail, and a lot less stressful. More importantly, you won’t be faced with the awful realization that you have no idea who any of these people on the ballot are once you get into the voting booth. If you vote absentee, you can look them up and make a more informed choice!

Oh, and there’s also the whole global pandemic thing. You know. That old thing.

So please do participate in local democracy this year and, if you can, do it by mail. You can apply for an absentee ballot here.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.