Report by Paula Antolini, April 23, 2021, 7:20AM EDT
OPINION / LETTER FROM THE EDITOR
The Town of Bethel offered an “Absentee Vote” to Bethel registered voters, for the 2021 Bethel Budget vote held on April 20, 2021, but many might not have been able to vote via this “absentee” process simply because you had to submit the absentee application for a ballot IN PERSON. So how is this an “absentee” vote at all, if you are out of town during the months regarding the Bethel Budget Vote? It cannot be done.
This, combined with the fact that a very late notice was mailed to, and received by some residents, and a late issuance of the application form, and it prevented who-knows-how-many votes from being cast. For instance, those in the military, those away at college, those on vacation for months etc. could not possibly vote in this referendum because the town seemed to mislead them into thinking an “absentee vote” was possible for them. It was not. Also, what about seniors who do not have a computer to download the application to obtain a ballot, or do not have transportation to travel to the municipal building to obtain the application and/or submit the ballot? Are there any special arrangements made for them to ensure a vote is possible?
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How many Bethel residents have children away at college or out of town in the military, or an elderly relative, who could not participate in this vote? I did.
When we spoke at length to Bethel Town Registrar Tim Beeble, who is usually very knowledgeable and informative, we were surprisingly met with a bit of negativity (all friendly, mind you) and a barrage of animosity when being schooled on what form of government we have, and laws and requirements on eligible voters, or suggestions that we contact the Charter Revision Commission to change the Town Charter, or suggestions that we contact Senator Haskell to ask for new legislation, etc. Then a long explanation of why it is virtually impossible to allow enough time for absentee votes “to accommodate Bethel voters who do not live here” stating, “Perhaps you can see how this is unworkable,” Beeble said.
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Beeble’s exact statement was as follows:
“In a general election, by law Absentee Ballots are available 30 days before the election which gives plenty of time for an AB application to be mailed to the TC [Town Clerk], an AB ballot to be mailed to the voter, and for the ballot to be mailed back to the TC [Town Clerk]. According to our Charter, the annual town budget meeting must be held in the first 7 days of April. The Town Meeting vote determines the budget amount and the date of the referendum to be 7-15 days from the Town Meeting. Since the printer of the official ballots cannot be given the go-ahead until the day after the Town Meeting, the ballots are not available for 4-6 days. Consequently, to make AB ballots available beginning the day after the Town Meeting, the TC issues paper ballots that must be hand counted. The short timeframe of a referendum vote, as little as 7 days, makes the mailing of applications and AB ballots unworkable.”
The Bethel Advocate then asked, “Why are “absentee” applications for ballots even offered then, if a person who is away obviously cannot hand it in IN PERSON? Seems like this would automatically eliminate a lot of voting opportunities, which does not seem fair (or legal?). This is just blown off? I hear you about all the limits on days, but then there is no such thing possible as this “absentee” vote, and [it is] false advertising. I am sure I am not the only one upset about votes being lost.”
Beeble replied, “The TC [Town Clerk] administers Absentee Ballots. The Registrars of Voters count them. The Registrars submitted a proposal to the Charter Revision Commission to require the referendum vote be held no sooner than 10 days (rather than 7 days) after the Town Meeting. The Commission agreed with our proposal, but the Selectmen haven’t advanced the Charter Revision proposals to a referendum vote for adoption of the changes.“
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The Bethel Advocate addressed the impossibility of this process, and said, “Well the absentee application requiring IN-PERSON submission has obviously NOT been “worked out.” Shame on the town for just blowing off people who really want to vote via absentee, which was NOT possible obviously regarding this process. So this is not going to be addressed, that who-knows-how-many people were prevented from doing a proper absentee vote on this budget? It is not the voters’ problem or task to work it out so every voter can vote, it is the town’s.
Now here is where Beeble gave us a VERY long explanation of an exaggerated and worst case scenario of the voting process.
Beeble’s reply was:
“It’s not just students in RI who might vote by Absentee Ballot. What about the overseas Bethel voters? To accommodate Bethel voters who do not live here, we would need a Charter Revision to provide a 30 day period between the Town Meeting and the referendum vote. In that case, the Town Meeting would be the first week of April and the referendum would be held around May 10th. Then, if the referendum fails, another cycle of BOF meeting, Town Meeting and Referendum vote would need another 6 week period. The second referendum would be held at the end of June for the budget year that begins July 1st. There have been years when there have been 4 re-do’s of the budget referendum. This would require 6 months of voting cycles. The budget would not be adopted until November, which is 5 months after the fiscal year began Perhaps, you can see how this is unworkable. In most cities, the voters do not have a vote on the budget. The Town Meeting form of government dates back to Colonial days when all Bethel voters lived in town rather elsewhere. In the past 22 years, I have served on 4 of the 6 Charter Revision Commissions. Never once did you or any other Bethel voter propose that the Charter be revised for an annual budget process that would allow out-of-state and overseas voters to vote by mail.”
To clarify, The Bethel Advocate did NOT ask for a “vote by mail,” we simply asked how it is called an “absentee vote’ if you have to submit the initial application for ballot IN PERSON?
These response tactics used by town authorities are all methods spoken to sidestep the real issue of the “absentee” vote being misleading, and it is simply is not working. Even the registrar said it is “unworkable” but nothing seems to be done to change matters.
To add insult to injury, Beeble said, “You could ask Haskell to propose legislation to permit casting a ballot by phone, email, or a tweet.” A tweet?
We were in no way insinuating the town should allow an un-secure vote with no ID, but surely there is a simple method to document residents ID when they ARE here, perhaps keeping ID information on file, so that when a registered voter submits an application by mail (with enough time to still receive and mail back a ballot!) they can then can easily do this, and be properly identified, without having to submit the application for ballot IN PERSON. The IN PERSON aspect makes this NOT an absentee vote! How many times do we need to say that? Perhaps an individual password or code could be issued at the time the voter registers with the town, that would then be required when mailing an application via USPS. Problem solved!
Beeble also stated, “The town clerk administers absentee ballots and should be able to answer any questions or give you clarification about the process.” We have contacted both the Town Clerk Lisa Bergh and also First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker. Bergh has not replied, but we received the following reply from Knickerbocker:
On April 23rd at 11:31AM, Knickerbocker replied, saying this topic regards STATE law. He wrote:
“Paula, thanks for sharing your concerns. I know you addressed this to the Town Clerk, but please allow me to pass along some information that I think you’ll agree is important.
“Mainly, you should know that the rules and procedures for local referendums are mostly established by STATE law, not local ordinance.
“The annual Town Budget Meeting was held on Monday, April 5th. Absentee ballots were available immediately thereafter, as they always are. My office always sends out a postcard a few days before the budget referendum to remind people to vote, and this year we also included information on absentee ballots in case there were still people who were uncomfortable voting in person due to COVID. But that letter was not the only communication. All the usual procedures for obtaining an absentee ballot were still in effect, as always.
“I am completely confident that our registrars and town clerk did everything possible within the limits of state law to ensure the public’s ability to vote. Every one of those individuals take that mission very seriously. If there are modifications that would improve that process, it’s an issue we should take that up with our state representatives and state senators.“
Knickerbocker did not address the “absentee ballot” issue at all, which was the main point of our communication. We are not indicating anyone is not taking “that mission seriously” we are simply pointing out a failure in the process and asking why they keep following this system if it is not working for all voters.
The Bethel Advocate wrote to First Selectman Knickerbocker once more, at 12:03PM, and we commented:
“Yes everyone works diligently, not saying they don’t, but seeing that THIS vote had different mailing times, it was impossible to meet those for an out of state registered Bethel voter, not to mention the “IN PERSON” requirement for the application for ballot submission process is impossible, thus preventing those voters from voting. You are not concerned about this? Yes this could be state law, but YOUR town clerk distributed misleading information that made it seem as if all Bethel registered voters COULD VOTE by the absentee process, which is simply not true. False info. Even the registrar said it is “NOT WORKABLE.” So why is this “absentee” process being put forward? Why is no one, including you, addressing this issue? Yes I can contact legislators, but why are you letting this take place in Bethel? I also mentioned problems with seniors (and disabled too) voting and no one addresses that either.”
Knickerbocker replied with just eight words, and at 12:08PM wrote “Let me repeat: this is a STATE issue.”
We will update this article as we receive more information.