Jessie Cheung, Contributing Photographer

On Election Day 2018 — in a year before the coronavirus pandemic and in an election with smaller voter turnout — the city of New Haven was running into problems, many of which are only magnified by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The News reported a flood of calls to the mayor’s office from people not knowing where to vote, hours-long lines, and understaffed offices spending days after the election counting and recounting the votes. This year, the city clerk of New Haven has reported a record-breaking number of requested and submitted absentee ballots. The city has prepared to face a new set of challenges in managing votes both on the day of and in the days after the election. In the meantime, local voting organizations and residents have also made efforts to ensure that the city’s Election Day efforts run smoothly.

“I think the single biggest threat to the legitimacy of this election is, in the event the election is close, imagine there are 10,000 ballots that get tossed out for arriving late or are disqualified for technical issues,” said Gregory Huber, chair of Yale’s Political Science Department.

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified concerns over the city’s capacity to manage its election day responsibilities, according to multiple alders and other community leaders. At the start of October, the state of Connecticut approved a $93,000 grant to increase the New Haven City Clerk’s five-person staff by 15 temporary employees. The News previously reported that in recent weeks, many voters have called in with complaints. Some claimed to have not received their ballot; others said that they received the wrong one, something Huber himself experienced. The city responded by opening up curbside absentee voting on the weekend before the election.

Ward 7 Alder Abigail Roth, who represents Downtown and Wooster Square, said that an unusual amount of uncertainty has marred the current election cycle.

“Voting this election has been the thing I’ve gotten the most questions on — probably in the whole time I’ve been an alder,” Roth said.

Huber said this uncertainty can be attributed to the state of Connecticut’s inexperience with mail-in voting. According to Huber, this election will mark many residents’ first time ever voting by mail. He also noted that unlike many states, mail-in ballots in Connecticut are handled at the level of local clerks and registrars of voters, charged with sending out and receiving thousands upon thousands of ballots.

Connecticut’s infrastructure in Greater New Haven — and particularly in the city — is weak, he said.

“Very few people normally vote absentee [in Connecticut],” Huber said. “The system is not really set up to handle this volume of mail voting.”

Huber noted that there are several states, such as Colorado, Washington and California, which have an extremely robust system in which every voter is automatically mailed a ballot without having to request it. These states also have scanners and other machinery which make the process of checking the signatures on ballots and other technicalities completely automated, Huber said. In Connecticut, the process is completed manually with a hand-fed optical scanner.

The existence of the pandemic, Huber said, has highlighted Connecticut’s lack of early voting options. Unlike many states, the Nutmeg State does not offer any opportunities for early voting. During this year’s election, this means that many voters must either risk their health by voting in person or try their hand at the state’s inexperienced mail-in voting system. In addition, he also noted that Connecticut’s absentee voting provisions are so restrictive that new legislation had to be proposed this year to allow “fear of illness” to be a valid excuse to vote absentee.

This all serves to put unprecedented pressure on New Haven’s local election offices, he said.

“There’s a lot of things that are taking place at the local level that are asking local officials to take on a task they don’t have much experience with at this volume,” Huber said.

City Clerk Michael Smart and Democratic Registrar of Voters Shannel Evans did not respond to a request for comment on their ongoing Election Day preparations.

Huber himself has faced issues with the Connecticut mail-in voting system, as he was originally sent someone else’s ballot. And while he was able to get the problem addressed 24 hours later, he said the experience has increased his worry about greater disenfranchisement come Election Day.

Roth previously told the News that she had received multiple messages a day from voters with issues related to absentee ballots. However, she said those complaints have died down significantly in recent days, giving her newfound hope that the absentee ballot process on Election Day will run more smoothly.

“I’m just trying to give out as much information as possible, since this is new to everyone,” Roth said.

Aaron Goode ’04, co-founder of local voting rights and activism group New Haven Votes, said that unlike other states across the country, he doesn’t anticipate active voter suppression being a major issue in Connecticut. However, he did echo Huber’s concerns that New Haven’s inexperience handling mail-in voting could cause issues both on Election Day and in the period afterwards.

To combat this, he said his organization has volunteered to alphabetize votes and other paperwork for the busy city clerk’s office. Since last week, the group has also worked to inform people that it is too late to vote by mail and they must seek out other methods. In Connecticut, mail-in votes must be received by 8:00 p.m. on Election Day to count.

“I think [the issue] is just a lack of experience and sometimes lack of competence in administering our elections,” Goode said. “I think it’s important to make the distinction between willfully suppressing votes and inadvertently suppressing votes through mistakes and lack of planning.

Goode also noted that as concerns about election integrity have reached new heights across the country, communication from election officials has never been more important. He said that this communication is necessary to assure New Haven residents of the election’s integrity in the event that final results are not available on the night of the election.

The News previously reported that the City Services and Environmental Policy Committee, which oversees election operations, scheduled multiple workshops for Smart and Evans to attend and address questions. They both failed to appear at either of the two workshops.

“If they are having trouble keeping up with the pace of ballots, they should actually come out in the open and say that, rather than finding out on Election Day that they are not going to be able to process the ballots in time,” Goode said.

Huber, Roth and Goode all mentioned the additional need for clarity and communication as the votes come in and are counted, especially as officials like President Donald Trump look to paint mail-in voting as inherently fraudulent. They all emphasized that New Haveners should be prepared to wait for final results well beyond midnight on Election Day.

For Roth, this piece of the puzzle is critical for ensuring that voters are confident in this year’s election results.

“The president has made clear that he thinks [mail-in voting] can’t be done legitimately,” Roth said. “It’s incredibly important that everything is done properly.”

Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa, who chairs the City Services and Environmental Policy committee, said she has faith that the city will properly conduct the election. She said she does not expect New Haven to end up in the press for any mistakes or wrongdoing, but instead as a model for handling the election under the strain of COVID-19.

“New Haven is a city that is looked up to,” Festa said.

Huber, on the other hand, said that voters should expect to possibly see news of mishaps. He said both major parties are going to be looking for discrepancies that can be used to call into question the integrity of the election. Given the air of uncertainty that the pandemic has thrown over the election, he said these discrepancies could be more likely to appear this year than in the past.

Mirroring Huber, Goode said it would be much more important to have a correct result than a quick one. He added that there will be added pressure on the media to convey this message even after Election Day.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said that as he’s looking ahead to the election, trust in the process is vital.

“I think everyone is on the same page that the integrity of the absentee ballot process is of the utmost importance,” Elicker said. “If there are any issues in New Haven, we wouldn’t want those to be used to discredit the overall system.”

As New Haven approaches its biggest election management test in years, Festa said the city is prepared to face the challenges of the day itself. And while disputes of the validity of results are to be expected, she is certain those will not affect the city’s larger image of election integrity.

According to the Connecticut Secretary of State’s office, there were 205,609 votes cast in New Haven County in the 2016 presidential election.

Thomas Birmingham |