With the recent introduction of three reform proposals, Connecticut could be well on its way to adopting a 21st century approach to preserving voting rights and expanding access to voter registration.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, along with Common Cause Board Chairman Bilal Sekou, made good on their Martin Luther King Jr. Day announcement by recently proposing legislation as a "fitting tribute" to the civil rights leader.
Gov. Malloy correctly said then that the state is moving in the right direction, while many other states add more hurdles to voter turnout, including implementing overly strict and unnecessary photo identification requirements.
Secretary Merrill and Government Administration and Elections Committee Co-Chairs Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, and Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, joined the governor in helping Connecticut move beyond antiquated voter laws that keep people away from the polls rather than increase access.
House Bill No. 5024 implements Election Day registration; establishes an online voter-registration system for eligible voters with a driver's license, enabling them to register online from any computer; and allows a voter-registration database to interface with that of the Department of Motor Vehicles. (If passed, same-day registration could happen in time for the 2013 municipal elections.)
A House resolution proposing a constitutional amendment, would, with three-fourths' support of the General Assembly, go to the voters this fall to remove absentee-ballot voting restrictions. If ratified, the legislature would have the ability in the future to approve further reforms - early voting, regional voting, mail-in voting or no-excuse absentee ballots that would allow voters to choose the convenience of an absentee ballot without swearing to some specific reason, such as illness or unavoidable absence from the district.
The third proposal, House Bill 5022, increases maximum criminal sentences for people convicted of trying to influence or suppress votes by threat of force or bribery and establishes new penalty guidelines for various vote-tampering crimes. While voting fraud is rare, this bill would send the signal Connecticut is serious about it.
Secretary Merrill said Connecticut's proposals are attracting positive national attention from voting advocates. In contrast, 34 other states have introduced a record number of bills over the last year requiring photo identification to vote.
Passage of Connecticut's legislation would open voter access and help change the current dismal fact that one in three eligible Connecticut voters does not even bother to register.
Yes, all good citizens should register and vote, and there is no good excuse for forgoing this right won with blood and great sacrifice. But restrictive laws disproportionately affect low-income and minority citizens, renters and students - eligible voters already facing the biggest barriers to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
"People who have the right to vote should be able to vote," Sen. Slossberg said. "Why are we working so hard to make it difficult to register?"
Secretary Merrill has high hopes for Connecticut's future, as detailed in her office's recently released Election Performance Report, a year's worth of work by an 18-member task force comprised of state and local elections officials, representatives of municipal government, voting advocates and academics.
The 36-page report makes 21 recommendations, including making Election Day a holiday, creating a Connecticut Democracy Index to track election process trends and performance, streamlining absentee balloting and maintaining security and integrity of voting.
Connecticut is doing the right thing and heading in the right direction.
Dr. King would be proud.