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COVID-19 could lead to permanent expansion of voting opportunities

The push to expand voting opportunites in Connecticut is gaining momentum.  

As a stopgap measure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state legislature instituted what was essentially no-excuse absentee voting in the 2020 election.

The move wound up creating record voter turnout and more than 650,000 absentee votes. It also caused people, such as legislators, activists and election workers, to question not only the future of absentee voting rights in Connecticut, but expanding voting rights in general.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill has said publicly that she is “more convinced than ever that offering more options for people in terms of voting is the way to go,” and that she plans on proposing an amendment to the state’s Constitution to allow voters to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse.  

State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, is a member of the legislature's Government Administration and Elections Committee and was part of a small group that put together the language that allowed voters concerned about contracting COVID-19 to cast absentee ballots in 2020.

That language had to align with the state’s Constitution. Palm said she thinks Connecticut’s voting laws would be far more progressive were it not for the necessity of a Constitutional amendment, and, consequentially, a public referendum on any proposed change.

“It’s much harder to change our voting laws in Connecticut than in most places, which is why they’re so Byzantine,” Palm said. “They really need to be changed.” 

Palm agrees with Merrill in that last year’s expanded absentee voting should be the state’s new standard. She said there should be other reforms as well.

“I would like to see not only unconditional absentee balloting become a permanent fixture, but to go beyond that to have early voting, for example,” Palm said. She advocated for automatic voter registration as well.

Connecticut College Elections Professor Mara Suttmann-Lea elaborated on some of the ideas Palm highlighted. 

“Automatic voting registration is a really promising reform. It essentially removes that first step in the voting process that can be burdensome,” she said. “Any time you have an interaction with a state agency, DMV being a classic example, you’re asked if you want to register to vote. That just happens automatically, and then residents can opt out of that if they don’t want to be registered to vote.” 

Suttmann-Lea agreed with Palm, saying that instituting early voting in Connecticut “would bring us up to the 21st century.”

“Connecticut already has Election Day registration. There’s pretty compelling evidence that when you have both early voting and Election Day registration, they can do a lot to retain voters and boost new turnout,” Suttmann-Lea said. “From the perspective of increasing access to ballots, the state has shown it has the infrastructure to run something like expanded mail voting quite well, even when they’re doing it on the fly.” 

Claire Walsh of Deep River, who founded Democratic Women in Action, a group comprising southeastern Connecticut residents, does not look at the issue of voting as an academic or abstract issue; she sees it as a human one. 

“Being a social worker, I’m very much aware of the hardships of working-class families, families with young children, people who need to work different shifts, they don’t necessarily work a 9-5 job, and I think there’s more hardship in their daily living as a whole,” Walsh said. “I’m committed to trying to make voting as easy as possible so that the working-class people in our country can feel empowered and know that their voice is important.”

Walsh said her group sent out about 40,000 postcards to people across the country after determining that combating voter suppression would be one of the group’s main goals. In October 2019 group members started sending postcards to states such as Kentucky, Wisconsin, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Arizona in order to alert minority voters in rural areas that they may have been taken off voter rolls.

Walsh, Palm and Suttmann-Lea all touted the high turnout of the 2020 general election and pointed to it as proof of the viability of expanding voting rights.

Norwich Republican Registrar Dianne Slopak, though, had a different view of the election. 

“I think it was a nightmare,” Slopak said. “We had more than 5,000 [absentee] ballots, normally we have maybe 500. To try to deal with that, and then try to deal with the secretary of the state, the governor and the legislature changing the rules every couple weeks, it was extremely frustrating for the city clerks and the registrars.”

Norwich City Clerk Betsy Barrett said in November that if this year’s experience with thousands of absentee ballots becomes the norm in future elections, city and town clerks are going to need to plan for hiring additional staff or adding hours to handle the high volumes of absentee ballot requests and ballots as they are delivered. Slopak offered a similar assessment. 

“It was crazy. It shouldn’t have to be that way every year,” Slopak said. “If they want to do what they want to do with no-excuse and early voting, they have to revise the system.” 

Slopak noted that absentee voting typically favors Democrats. Suttmann-Lea touched on that perception as well. But, she said, it’s possible that election reforms could help both parties. 

“We’re at an interesting crossroads because Republicans did pretty dang well in down-ballot races this election,” Suttmann-Lea said. “Joe Biden won the presidency by a fairly wide margin, but the race was close in the key states. I think we saw such high turnout this election, and something that has been key to President Trump’s campaigning is turning out new voters, so it’s my sense that there is a possibility this election may put to bed the myth that high turnout only benefits Democrats.” 

Suttmann-Lea also recognized the quandary the state is facing: While expanding voting rights will lead to more votes, it will also lead to more work for election officials and numerous changes to the state’s election administration. She wasn’t surprised that election officials felt overburdened in this past election. 

“Any time there’s a particularly abrupt change in election processes, or in this case, an increase in mail voting, it’s going to put a greater burden on our local election officials,” Suttmann-Lea said. “The simple answer is, more staff, more support, more funding. I think if it’s something that voters want to continue to use … it can’t be an unfunded mandate.”

Slopak, Walsh, Palm and Suttmann-Lea all said they foresee, at the least, expanded absentee voting rights in Connecticut’s future.

Walsh said she will continue to mount efforts to encourage greater voting access in Connecticut.

 “In Connecticut, we have a Democratic governor, a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate. This is the perfect storm situation,” Walsh said. “This is the time that we need to do it. We don’t have to sit and guess, is this the right thing? Is this the right time? No, we can look to a month ago and see, ‘Yes, this is the right thing to do, this is the right time to do it,’ and get off our asses and get it done.”

Incoming House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said this week that one of his priorities for the upcoming legislative session, which starts Wednesday, is amending the state Constitution to provide for early voting and no-excuse absentee balloting.

Palm said moving toward expanding voting rights is a priority of hers and others Government Administration and Elections Committee.

 “We’re going to push hard for it as soon as we possibly can,” Palm said. “Right now people are still thinking about their priorities. The committees haven’t met yet, the chairs haven’t put forth their big topic items, but I don’t see this being relegated to the caboose of the train.” 

s.spinella@theday.com

 

 

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