Absentee ballot application
The absentee ballot application reads that you must put in an excuse to make use of your absentee ballot application. Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

Despite concluding that pre-filled absentee ballot applications dispersed in some Connecticut towns had violated election laws last year, state election regulators opted in an April order to take no punitive action due to the “extraordinary circumstances” of the pandemic.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission issued the order on April 6, responding to more than a dozen complaints from 10 municipalities where voters and town officials objected to the distribution of applications with voter information pre-entered on the form and a digital signature used in place of a “wet ink” signature by the voter.

The commission sided with the complainants and concluded that, although it was legal to send unsolicited ballot applications, those applications must be filled out and signed by the voter. However, the panel declined to take further action on the matter.

“[A]s this is a question of first impression, brought largely due to extraordinary circumstances and the temporary expansion of absentee ballot access, the Commission declines to take any further action,” the regulators wrote. “However, the Commission expects that these Respondents will strictly comply in the future and only distribute blank applications in line with the assistance and distribution provisions of [state law.]”

In most cases the complaints involved the Democratic campaign consultant firm Blue Edge Strategies and its director, Michael Farina. 

The commission included in its order an email exchange between Farina and the secretary of the state’s office, in which the secretary’s election director, Ted Bromley, seemed to suggest that digital signatures were permissible on applications. The exchange also suggests Farina had employed digital signatures in the past.

“I was recently told that that signature needs to be wet,” Farina wrote. “Is that in statute? Or are we safe sending applications out in bulk with a printed signature? We’ve done that for years with no issue (but that doesn’t mean it’s been legal).”

“Digital is fine,” Bromley replied.

The secretary of the state’s office later clarified in a formal opinion to town clerks that voters should personally sign the applications, however voters should not be penalized if they submitted an application with a digital signature. The opinion directed clerks to issue the absentee ballot to the voter and refer the matter to regulators.

In its April opinion, the commission concluded that withholding a ballot based on a digital signature risked disenfranchising the voter. 

“[W]hile the Commission concludes here that it is impermissible for a distributor to execute any portion of an elector’s absentee ballot application without their consent and direction, doing so does not invalidate the absentee ballot application for the elector. Any election official failing to issue an absentee ballot upon receipt of an otherwise validly executed application risks violating [state law] and disenfranchising such elector,” the commission wrote.