(TNS) — Under her new plan to ensure safe and secure voting this year, Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said she will send out absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in the state and pay the postage for their ballots.

But that doesn’t mean that every voter in the state will be legally eligible to vote by ballot. Under state law — which is not being modified for Merrill’s plan — fear of catching the coronavirus at the polls doesn’t necessarily qualify someone for an absentee ballot. Merrill said Monday that she would like Gov. Ned Lamont or the General Assembly to provide more guidance to her office.

“It is within my office’s authority … to interpret the statute," Merrill said. “I am completely sympathetic to the issues that people have. I think it’s unconscionable that we would make people decide their health versus their vote."

The absentee ballot initiative is among Merrill’s priorities for the August presidential primary and November general election. Under Merrill’s plan, her office will also provide grants to municipalities, recruit and train general election poll workers and launch a public awareness campaign.

The presidential primary, originally scheduled for April 28, has been postponed to August 11 because of the coronavirus. The general election is scheduled for November 3, and could only be delayed by Congress.

“No Connecticut voter should ever have to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Merrill said in a release. “This plan is designed to ensure that Connecticut’s elections will be safe, secure, and accessible to every eligible voter who wants to participate.”

The program is funded through a federal grant that allocates about $400 million for states to invest in mail-in ballot voting and election security, Merrill said. Connecticut is slated to receive about $5.2 million.

Who Can Get an Absentee Ballot?

During the coronavirus pandemic, states have sought to expand the use of absentee ballots amid voter concern about access to voting. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found widespread concern that COVID-19 will disrupt the ability to vote in the fall election.

But under the current version of Merrill’s election-during-a-pandemic plan, it’s not clear that voters will qualify for absentee ballots simply because they’re concerned about catching or unknowingly spreading the coronavirus.

The secretary of the state’s office will send absentee ballot applications to every voter. But in a Monday afternoon press briefing, Merrill said that the state’s standard rules for absentee ballot eligibility will still apply. That means that voters will only qualify for absentee ballots if they are:

  • actively serving in the U.S. armed forces
  • out of town for the entire day of voting
  • ill
  • physically disabled
  • forbidden by their religion from voting on the day of the election
  • working as a poll worker at another location

Merrill said that the state’s absentee ballot provisions — which are written into the state’s constitution and expanded upon in state statute — have never been formally interpreted or put to the test in a court case.

It’s Merrill’s office that decides how to interpret those provisions, and whether to accept a general fear of the pandemic as acceptable under the “illness” provision. However, Merrill said that she hopes the state legislature and the governor will provide her with additional guidance and clarity on appropriate interpretations of the law.

At a Monday afternoon press briefing, Gov. Ned Lamont said he may be able to address the August primary through an executive order. His current emergency powers, however, end in September. He added Monday that the November general election could potentially be addressed by the state legislature.

“When it comes to November, I’d like to think that perhaps the legislature … [can] come up with a good fair way to pass some rulings that allow us to do the same thing for the general election," Lamont said.

Merrill said, in a typical election year, 5-8 percent of Connecticut voters cast mail-in ballots. Regardless of how the state ends up defining an absentee voter, Merrill said she expects to see a big jump in that number this year.

Cybersecurity

Even with the number of mail-in ballots expected to increase this year, Merrill said she doesn’t see that change leading to any problems with fraud. That’s because the absentee ballot process itself is not changing and, Merrill said, the existing process already includes a number of checks and balances.

“There is no change to the way we’re processing absentee ballots under our plan,” Merrill said. "The concern is that there’s going to more of them.”

But Merrill’s plan does also address more general concerns about security, particularly cybersecurity. Merrill said in the release that cybersecurity is crucial particularly after the Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

“All the information we have received from the federal intelligence community indicates that various malicious actors are still seeking to disrupt our elections,but Connecticut is partnering with federal, state, and local officials to make our cybersecurity as strong as it can be," Merrill said.

Her plan calls for the Connecticut National Guard to perform “a high-level cybersecurity assessment” in every Connecticut town, to look for potential security risks, according to the release. This assessment will include about 20 towns that have “chronic connectivity issues to the state’s election infrastructure."

The pandemic election plan includes another grant program that will fund 50 percent of the cost for a town to upgrade its election officers’ work stations.

Statewide, Merrill’s office also plans to launch a program that will allow “technicians” to remotely upgrade local election workers’ computers, and plans to upgrade the state’s central voter registration system.

Merrill also said that Arthur House, who served as cybersecurity chief for former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, will serve as an adviser for the upcoming 2020 election.

Safety Concerns

But unlike other election years, cybersecurity is not the only looming safety concern. This year, voters and election workers are also worried about unknowingly catching or spreading the coronavirus at the polls.

Merrill’s plan addresses that concern, too, by providing grants — under the “Safe Polls Grant Program” — for municipalities to increase their staffing and cleaning protocols as needed.

To protect students and school employees, the plan will require all schools to close on the day of elections.

At Monday’s press briefing, Merrill said municipalities are not required to submit plans for these grants. However, she expects that most municipalities will, in part because they’re already required to submit yearly emergency plans.

“I’m assuming that most towns will probably apply to our office," Merrill said. 'I’m assuming every election official is concerned about the safety of their polling place."

Municipalities that do receive funds will have to certify the appropriate use of the funds will be open to audits, according to Connecticut’s director of elections Ted Bromley. As far as safety goes, Bromley added, polling places will also be subject to existing public health measures regarding public places.

“To the extent that the [federal Centers for Disease Control] is also requiring these additional measures to be taken, those will carry through and apply to the public buildings and the polling places as well," Bromely said.

But at the end of the day, Merrill said the specifics of the polling places are up to the discretion of local elections officers, not state officials.

“In Connecticut, towns administer elections. What we do is we help,” Merrill said. “Really elections are in the hands of your local officials.”

©2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.