Across CT, no problems at the polls

Fears of violence and disruptions at polling places failed to materialize in Connecticut — and most of the nation — on Tuesday as residents went peacefully to the polls.

There were few if any reports of trouble at Connecticut polling places through a day of heavy but steady turnout. Some 70{a1a1c2aadef71e97d3d8dc505175168462e21e65098a9638786aefb22bafcd71} of registered voters in Connecticut had cast ballots by Tuesday evening with hours remaining before the polls closed, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said at a 6 p.m. press conference.

About half of Connecticut’s registered voters had cast a ballot by noon Tuesday, thanks to heavy turnout early in the day and an unprecedented number of absentee ballots, she said.

At the end of the day, Connecticut voted solidly for Democrat Joe Biden.

Hartford saw a surge of voters early in the day. Long lines were reported at the Grace Lutheran Church polling location in the afternoon, but the number of voters at most of the polls dwindled as closing time drew near.

Mayor Luke Bronin said no major problems were reported throughout the day.

“In every election, there are hiccups and things that need to be worked out,” he said. “But this is the smoothest election that I’ve been a part of, and probably the smoothest election I can remember. There were no significant issues other than some long waits at polling places on a day where there was a very high turnout.”

Absentee ballots were still being tallied late Tuesday, but as of 8:30 p.m., Hartford had received 11,343, the mayor’s office said.

Bronin said the pandemic, the protests that followed the death of George Floyd and countless other issues fueled enthusiasm around voting in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.

“I think you probably had a larger crush of voters at polling locations this morning than you do in most elections. People were eager and passionate about casting their votes today,” he said. “It’s the accumulation of everything over the last four years. It’s the fact that we’ve had a president that has divided us on every line possible, poured fuel on claims of racial division, and empowered some of the worst instincts in our country. At the same time, he has governed with a level of incompetence that has had a direct impact on millions of Americans.”

Daijah Tindle, who stood in line at Grace Lutheran less than an hour before the polls closed, said she preferred to vote in person.

“I decided to vote in person because of the experience,” said Tindle, 25. “It’s the day, and there’s a lot of hype to it. It’s kind of like, OK, I know my vote counts. Let me come here and get it out of the way.”

She declined to say whom she was supporting in the presidential election, but she said this year “has been a lot to take in.”

“I feel like a lot of things are out of our control,” Tindle said. “But things happen for a reason. And it’s the way we react to things that makes a difference.”

Tariq Nickson, 22, of Hartford, said was supporting Biden and Kamala Harris.

“There’s been a bunch of confusion, and it’s been a difficult time for people,” he said of the last four years. “I don’t want to see that no more.”

Asked about Trump, he added: “It’s just time to get him out of office.”

Francesco Alsis-Nemeth, 30, voted for Trump. He praised the president’s performance.

“He’s been bringing back jobs,” Alsis-Nemeth said. “He’s turning this country around better than other presidents have.”

Enery Torres, of Hartford, said she voted for Biden because “we need a change – a positive one.” She said Trump hasn’t been supportive of Americans throughout the pandemic and during other hardships, including the hurricanes that have pummeled states and U.S. territories during his term.

After Tuesday, Torres said, “I’m hoping everything gets better. Everything that went backwards, I want it to go forward again for our kids, our families and everyone else that this has put a weigh on.”

About 636,000 of the state’s 2.3 million voters already had voted before the polls opened at 6 a.m. under the provisions of a temporary law that allows every voter to use an absentee ballot for the first time due to a suddenly resurgent COVID-19 pandemic. Nationally, a stunning 99.6 million votes had been cast, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

“We are hearing all across the state a really, really large turnout. And you’re seeing it right here,” Merrill said.

Pandemic worries influencing many voters
Even in the lull of the afternoon Tuesday, a steady stream of voters arrived at Avon High School in Avon to cast their ballots.

Frances Witkowski, an Avon resident, said she showed up in person because she didn’t feel comfortable voting absentee.

“I don’t trust the absentee ballots,” she said. “There are too many ‘ifs, ands or buts’ about them.”

Witkowski declined to reveal who she was supporting for president, but said she looked for fresh faces when voting in the state races. Two terms is enough time for someone to serve in the General Assembly, she said.

Many voters mentioned the ongoing pandemic as one of the motivating factors behind their vote.

In Mansfield, Frank and Lucinda Vonduntz were thinking of their family as they cast their ballots.

“We haven’t seen our grandchildren since March, some of them,” said Lucinda. “It’s very hard to be so isolated.”

The couple said that they wanted to vote in person, despite coronavirus, because of the uncertainty created by President Donald Trump over counting absentee ballots.

“We risked it, and came here because we want our vote to be counted,” said Frank Vonduntz.

Also in Mansfield, Vicki Magley said she wants more focus on controlling the pandemic. Connecticut’s coronavirus positivity rate has risen steadily in the last month, and Gov. Ned Lamont has announced the state will roll back to Phase 2 of reopening at the end of this week. Meanwhile, several states around the nation continue to report record high numbers of both infections and hospitalizations.

“I’m voting because of the disbelief in science and also just the general mistreatment of people, that we can’t care for our needy and our elderly with COVID.” Magley said. “It’s ridiculous that we have such a disparity in income in such a wealthy country.”

Exit polls: COVID matters
In a normal presidential election year, exit polling can provide an early window into results and reams of information on who voted how and why. This being a not even remotely normal year, the early results you can forget about. And who voted that way – you can also forget about.

But some of the whys are already coming into focus. And, not surprisingly, COVID-19 is the top issue. Economic recovery is next.

Polling by the firm Morning Consult, which includes exit polling Tuesday and from those who voted early, showed 93{a1a1c2aadef71e97d3d8dc505175168462e21e65098a9638786aefb22bafcd71} of those who voted for Biden and 59{a1a1c2aadef71e97d3d8dc505175168462e21e65098a9638786aefb22bafcd71} of those who voted for Trump cited control of COVID-19 as a very important factor determining who they voted for. Biden voters also cited a number of health care factors as being more important than Trump voters did.

Eighty percent of Trump voters and 75{a1a1c2aadef71e97d3d8dc505175168462e21e65098a9638786aefb22bafcd71} of Biden voters cited economic recovery. Trump voters more than Biden voters also said lowering the unemployment rate was very important.

About 84{a1a1c2aadef71e97d3d8dc505175168462e21e65098a9638786aefb22bafcd71} of Biden voters and 60{a1a1c2aadef71e97d3d8dc505175168462e21e65098a9638786aefb22bafcd71} of Trump voters said unifying the country was very important.

Data from AP is showing 40{a1a1c2aadef71e97d3d8dc505175168462e21e65098a9638786aefb22bafcd71} of voters said the pandemic is the most important issue for the nation, with 50{a1a1c2aadef71e97d3d8dc505175168462e21e65098a9638786aefb22bafcd71} saying it’s not under control. About 30{a1a1c2aadef71e97d3d8dc505175168462e21e65098a9638786aefb22bafcd71} said the economy and jobs was the top concern, with 60{a1a1c2aadef71e97d3d8dc505175168462e21e65098a9638786aefb22bafcd71} saying the economy is poor shape.

In Fairfield, politics is local
Jackson Shostak, 19, voted Tuesday morning in Fairfield.

He said he was raised to understand politics as a local phenomenon, so he hopes Fairfield voters think along the same lines and don’t vote Democrat down ballot because they dislike the president. “I voted primarily because of local issues,” he said. He explained that he’s a student at American University right now but wants to move back home when he’s older and raise a family here. But he wants to see a stronger economy in Connecticut and more jobs.

He hopes “people will vote and think locally about the problems Connecticut is encountering.”

Too young to vote; not too young to help
Standing at the entrance of the gymnasium at Conte West Hills Middle School in New Haven, Clifford White greeted an elderly lady and guided her to a table to start the process of voting—something he himself is too young to do.

White, 16, said that he wanted to work at the polls today for many reasons. For one, he’s been acutely aware of the “racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia” in society, particularly from his perspective as a young Black man.

“I’ve realized how much politics affects our day-to-day lives — policies, our economy, our prisons and incarceration system, our racist institutions, many different facets,” he said.

A junior at Achievement First Amistad High School in New Haven, he said that as he has become more politically conscious over the years, he started volunteering for nonprofit organizations, joined the youth chapter of the NAACP, and recently attended protests like the ones for Breonna Taylor. Working at the polls was a natural next step in what he sees as a long future of political engagement.

“I felt that being here, being hands-on as best as possible, would better my chances of really understanding what it really means to be a democracy,” he added.

White is just one of many youths who, too young to vote themselves, are working at polls today out of personal investment and a zeal for civic action.

At the New Haven Free Public Library, Aleena Chaudry and Jailene Resto, both 16 and juniors at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, were manning the front and guiding voters since the polls opened at 6 a.m.

Chaundry said she signed up because she was excited to “see the election process happening,” preparing her for when she’s able to vote in two years. It felt especially important to work this year, she said.

“With everything going on, with the injustice happening and basic human rights being taken away not only here but all around the world, I wanted to learn more about the policies and politics behind everything,” she said.

Resto said that the political energy and conviction of her generation is motivated in part by the fact that they are more affected in the long term.

“A lot of adults don’t realize that they’re voting for something now, but in 20 years, that thing is probably not going to affect them,” Resto said. “It’ll affect us, that’s why we care so much about it.”

No crush of students this year
Merrill said the voting was going smoothly, with the exception of a ballot mix-up in New London, where the wrong House district was on the ballot.

Gov. Ned Lamont said public safety officials were monitoring social media for evidence of efforts to disrupt voting or stage protests of the results.

“It’s not going to happen in Connecticut,” Lamont said. “Connecticut is going to be careful. We’re going to respect the power of the vote and respect the decisions.”

Long lines but few problems were reported at polling places across the state.

At the New Haven Free Public Library polling location, most of the voters are Yale University students, with just a small residential area covered beyond the campus. More than half of Yale students are assigned to vote there. Ella Manning, the polling location’s moderator, said that it’s been a slow day with low turnout — probably because so few students are on campus and voting in person.

“It’s been quiet,” she said. “There’s not as many Yale students coming through as in the past.”

The other main polling location for Yale students, Wexler-Grant School, covers a much larger residential area. Moderator Jeannette Morrison, who is also an alder for Ward 22, said that any lack of student votes has been subsumed by the huge community voter turnout.

“Usually, in most elections, we get about 500 or 550 for the day,” she said. “By 12 o’clock, we already had over 500 people. That really says that people are taking this right that they have to vote very seriously.”

A steady stream of University of Connecticut students voted at the Mansfield Community Center through the morning, part of a turnout of more than 600 people who had arrived to the poll by around 10 a.m., moderators said.

In previous election years, students living on the Storrs campus had been shuttled to the polls in buses, and two years ago, the onslaught nearly overwhelmed the registrars because of a large number of same-day registrations. This year, with the number of on-campus students much smaller and a pandemic underway, students were arriving on their own.

Registrars were taking some same-day registrations there, but as of Tuesday morning, the numbers were not overwhelming.

Across the nation, few reports of trouble
Blue New England registered a few interesting presidential choices among its reigning non-blue governors. Gov. Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, indicated he left his presidential choice blank, for the second time in two elections. He’s not up for re-election this year.

Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, also a Republican and running for his third two-year term, told reporters he voted for Joe Biden.

No word on how the Republican governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, running for re-election, voted.

Elsewhere, National Guard troops have been activated around the country. A roundup by the New York Times says as many as half the states could have troops on standby today. In this region, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has placed 1,000 troops on standby. In New Jersey, national guard troops have been assisting election workers for several days already.

Multiple news organizations have reported suspicious robocalls over the last few weeks across the country, warning people to “stay safe and stay home.” In Flint, Mich., in an apparent effort to suppress the vote, robocalls told residents to vote on Wednesday.

Late Tuesday, the U.S. Postal Service defied a federal judge’s order to search postal facilities in 15 states for more than 300,000 mail-in ballots that had not been registered as delivered. Northern New England locations in Maine and New Hampshire were included in that order.

The sweeps were to have been done by 3:30 p.m. ET. According to reporting by the Washington Post, at 5 p.m. attorneys for the U.S. justice department told U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan they would stick with their existing daily review timing from 4 to 8 p.m.

Sullivan also denied an emergency hearing request by the NAACP. A conference is scheduled for Wednesday.

AG Tong: Everyone’s vote will be counted
Connecticut officials pledged to deliver a safe voting experience at the polls, followed by a transparent and accurate count — albeit one that may not not be completed until Wednesday due to the large number of absentee ballots.

“Vote confidently. Everybody who wants to vote in this state will have the opportunity to cast their vote, and everybody who has cast their vote will have their vote counted,” Attorney General William Tong said. “We’re going to see to that.”

Lamont, a Democrat at the mid-point of his first term, campaigned over the weekend to reinforce a get-out-the-vote message aimed at exploiting Trump’s low-approval rating in the state, his dismal showing here in 2016, and a reluctance by Republicans to campaign for his reelection.

“I’m feeling pretty ramped up, amped up,” Lamont said. “I think we want to send a signal the last four years have been un-American, what’s going on in Washington. And I want a loud repudiation of that.”

Fellow Connecticut Democrats made about 553,559 phone calls and sent 971,846 text messages in the last two months, said spokeswomen Patty McQueen. Hundreds of volunteers also joined a “virtual phone bank” to call voters in swing states on behalf of the Biden-Harris ticket.

Republicans did the same thing; a party spokesman said the number of calls and texts would not be available until Wednesday.

Regardless, Republicans in the state say voters can repudiate the president without punishing the down-ballot ticket.

“I don’t see a blue tsunami coming our way,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who is not seeking re-election.

More new Democrats than Republicans
A record 2.3 million voters are eligible to vote in today’s election. New registrations have favored Democrats, who now outnumber Republicans in Connecticut, 850,046 to 480,026. The biggest bloc are the unaffiliated voters, 939,679.

Animus towards the president drove an unusually high turnout in the 2018 mid-term contests, helping Democrats here make their first legislative gains in a decade and leaving them confident about expanding their current majorities of 22-14 in the Senate and 91-60 in the House.

Security measures in place to prevent fraud
While Trump repeatedly has claimed baselessly that voting by absentee ballots is rife with fraud, election officials in Connecticut stress the security measures in place to ensure that no one casts an absentee ballot and then votes again at the polls. Only absentee ballots that arrive in today’s mail or are cast in drop boxes at a voter’s local town hall will be counted.

In Connecticut, absentee ballots are cast inside two envelopes. The outer one is marked with a bar code and the voter’s name and signature. The inner one contains the ballot and is meant to ensure the secrecy of the vote.

When a ballot is received at the local town clerk’s office prior to election day, it is scanned into a statewide voter system, and that person’s name is marked as having voted on a list used at the polls to check in voters.

Absentee ballots that arrive in the mail or are placed in secure drop boxes on election day are set aside until the polls close, when election officials confirm that those voters did not also vote at the polls.

“We’ll have a verification process at the end of the night to make sure. Every person gets one vote,” said Sue Larsen, the president of Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut.

The absentee ballots cast before election day can be counted beginning at 6 a.m. today. They are run through optical scanners, as is the case at the polls.

“We’ll go through until we’re finished,” Larsen said. “Some of the small towns may be able to be finished on election night. The … medium to larger towns and cities are probably going to do some of the counting on Wednesday.”

Communities have 96 hours to file their official results with Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.

Lawyers are standing by
To help resolve or monitor issues at the polls, the Connecticut Bar Association arranged for 175 volunteer lawyers to serve as non-partisan designees of the secretary at the polls.

“We will objectively assess voting situations or inconsistencies brought to us by the Secretary of the State’s office, report back, and resolve issues promptly by communicating Secretary Merrill’s directives to the voting moderator,” said Amy Lin Meyerson, the CBA president.

Voters will be asked to wear a mask and observe social-distancing protocols at polling places, but curbside voting and other accommodations, such as providing them separate space, are available to voters who refuse to wear a mask or cannot wear one for medical reasons.

“The bottom line is no one will be allowed to endanger anyone else’s health,” Merrill said. “You have a constitutional right to vote. You don’t necessarily have a constitutional right to vote in a certain way.” 

CT Mirror reporters Mark Pazniokas, Jenna Carlesso, Jan Spiegel, Isabella Zou, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas and Kelan Lyons contributed to this report. Reporting from Connecticut Public Radio is included in this story.