Merrill calls for changes in Connecticut voting laws

Hartford - Secretary of the State Denise Merrill on Friday introduced to state legislators a three-part package of proposals for changes in the state's voting law, including a new push for Election Day voter registration in the hopes of getting more people to vote.

"When one in three eligible voters in our state does not even bother to register to vote, that tells me we have a crisis of low voter participation," Merrill, a Democrat and former House majority leader, said in announcing the legislation.

Another proposal would put a question on the November ballot to amend part of the state constitution concerning absentee voting. The amendment would clear the way for future legislation to allow early voting, mail-in voting or "no excuse" absentee ballots for any eligible voter - not just for those who can't get to the polls.

A third measure would increase the criminal penalty for voter intimidation and interference to a Class D felony, punishable by up to five years imprisonment. It also would establish new penalty guidelines for vote-tampering crimes.

All three proposals are backed by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

During Friday's public hearing, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman told members of the Government Administration and Elections Committee that the legislation would expand voter participation at a time when other states are tightening requirements.

"Many states are taking steps to put obstacles in the way of citizens," said Wyman, a Democrat. "Here in Connecticut we're doing just the opposite."

Republican-majority legislatures in states including Indiana, Texas and Wisconsin recently passed measures that require voters to present photo identification at the polls.

Proponents of such laws say they prevent voter fraud. But Democrats claim the additional requirements suppress participation among low-income groups and minorities, who are more likely to vote Democratic.

Connecticut requires a pre-printed form of identification at the polls, such as a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or government document that shows the voter's name and either address, signature or photograph.

Eight states and the District of Columbia allow Election Day voter registration.

The General Assembly in 2003 approved Election Day registration, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. John G. Rowland, a Republican, who expressed concerns about potential fraud.

A version of the legislation passed the state's House of Representatives in 2009, but went no further.

Chris Healy, former chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, testified Friday that allowing Election Day registration, in addition to inviting fraud and confusion, would "demean the value of voting."

"I'm concerned that the more we make this an exercise in expediency, we sort of demean the whole process," Healy told legislators. "When you turn 18, you should go down and register. If you don't do that, and you don't take the time to understand what this country is all about, then shame on you," he said.

Merrill claims that Election Day registration actually would deter fraud, because would-be voters must appear in person, prove who they are and have their names cross-referenced to ensure that they haven't already cast a vote.

Under existing law, in-person voter registration is allowed until noon on the day before a primary, and up to seven days before an election.

Healy says that is plenty of time: "You can get up off the couch and go down and fill it out."

But State Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, elections committee co-chairwoman, said that if the ability exists to register people on Election Day, there is no good reason not to.

"Nowadays, there are a lot of people who don't pay attention to elections until it's very close to the election," Slossberg said. "Why are we disenfranchising them? They should have the right to vote."

The League of Women Voters of Connecticut also testified in favor of same-day registration.

Sixty-six percent of eligible citizens in Connecticut cast a vote in the 2008 presidential election, according to a Secretary of the State report. The national average was 62 percent. In states that offer Election Day registration, turnout was 69 percent.

Merrill also released Friday the final report of her Election Performance Task Force, which studied ways to improve the state's electoral system.

The report asserts that young adults, minorities and low-income populations likely would benefit the most from Election Day registration.

If the legislation passes, Merrill said, same-day registration could be enacted in time for the 2013 municipal elections.

The same bill also would create an online voter registration system for eligible voters with a Connecticut driver's license. Merrill emphasized that no voting would occur online, and such an arrangement would supplement, rather than replace, the existing registration system.

Voter registration currently takes place through the mail or in person at a local registrar of voters.

Mail-in registration forms are available online on the secretary of the state's website and also can be picked up and dropped off at Department of Motor Vehicles offices.

Only three classes of Connecticut voters are now allowed to vote via absentee ballot: the ill or disabled, those traveling out-of-town and individuals under a religious obligation that forbids such activity.

The proposed constitutional amendment would eliminate those restrictions and empower the legislature to craft laws to expand the use of absentee ballots. Thirty-two states have "no excuse" absentee voting, according to the task force report .

A minimum of three-quarters of both legislative chambers must support the bill to get the amendment question on the fall ballot.

j.reindl@theday.com

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