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General Assembly committee holds hearing on early voting, no-excuse absentee voting

The formal process of changing the state Constitution in order to expand voting rights has begun in earnest.

On Monday, the General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee heard public testimony regarding two bills proposing state constitutional amendments to allow for early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. The hearing garnered hundreds of people to enter written testimony supporting or opposing the bills.

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. It also caused legislators, activists and election workers, among others, to question not only the future of absentee voting rights in Connecticut, but to champion expanding voting rights in general.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill has said she is “more convinced than ever that offering more options for people in terms of voting is the way to go.” She testified in favor of both bills on Monday and took questions from legislators for more than an hour afterward.

She said COVID-19 “exposed the fundamental inflexibility of our election system.” She called the results of Connecticut’s altered 2020 election processes “a resounding success.” 

“More than 1.8 million people – a record number of Connecticut voters – cast ballots in November and more than 650,000 of them chose to vote by absentee ballot – 35% of total votes cast,” she said. “And now Connecticut voters are wondering, and contacting my office to ask, why can’t they choose to vote this way in every election? Why can’t they have the choice between voting early in-person, voting by absentee ballot, or voting in-person on Election Day? Why indeed.”

The state House and Senate passed a resolution in 2019 to allow for early voting, but the Senate vote didn’t carry a wide enough margin to put the question on the ballot. A simple majority vote in each chamber would put the idea to Connecticut voters in a referendum in 2022. Voters rejected a Constitutional amendment for early voting in 2014. Merrill said Monday that the ballot question was unclear for that referendum vote. 

The early voting constitutional amendment, co-sponsored by State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, adds a key sentence to the current text that deletes language outlining the specific reasons required for voting absentee to make it so anyone can vote by absentee ballot for any reason. Conley has co-sponsored both measures.

Proponents are hoping this bill will put the question of no-excuse absentee voting on the ballot in the 2022 election.

Critics such as Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, illustrated the divide between Republicans and Democrats on the issue of voting rights.

Sampson said the proposed bills were lacking details, such as how long the early voting period would be. Merrill replied by saying the final specifics and language of the resolutions are up to the legislature. 

The committee received overwhelming support in submitted testimony for the amendments, but there were some detractors who felt early voting and no-excuse absentee voting could sacrifice election integrity. 

Merrill defended the veracity of Connecticut’s recent election and downplayed claims of voter fraud or vote-tampering. Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that there was no widespread fraud or fraud significant enough to swing the recent elections. Election officials throughout the country refuted allegations of rampant voter fraud alleged by former President Donald Trump in the wake of the 2020 election. 

State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, who supports the bills, noted that “supposedly progressive Connecticut” has some of the most outdated voting laws in the country. She asked Merrill if she ever has to defend Connecticut when speaking with other secretaries of the state because of its rigid voting laws. 

Connecticut lags behind 43 states that allow early voting and/or no-excuse absentee voting. Only Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Connecticut require a specific reason to vote absentee. 

Merrill repeatedly made the point during the hearing that this legislation is not partisan in nature. 

“Utah, Colorado, and Oregon conduct all-mail elections. Louisiana, Georgia, and Massachusetts have Early Voting. Idaho, Ohio, and Vermont have in-person absentee ballots without an excuse,” she said. “Red states, purple states and blue states almost all allow their voters to conveniently vote prior to Election Day.”

Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut President Sue Larsen didn’t take a side on either bill. In her written testimony, she said both resolutions “are major changes to the electoral process.”

“Our viewpoint is, regardless of the decision whether or not to move forward with these policy decisions, that if it is to be voted on by this body and the general electorate, it is implemented correctly to ensure the integrity of the process,” Larsen went on. “Registrars of Voters are CT’s election officials, with a vast set of expertise, and we ask to be included in any discussions on how to accomplish a fair, transparent and accessible voting system.”

Southeastern Connecticut election officials have said it would take a lot of money and preparation to overhaul Connecticut’s election process. In November 2020, Norwich City Clerk Betsy Barrett said that if that year’s experience with thousands more 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. Norwich Republican Registrar Dianne Slopak offered a similar assessment in January of this year.

“If they want to do what they want to do with no-excuse and early voting, they have to revise the system,” she said.

Merrill’s office touted a poll in January from a nonpartisan advocacy group that found 73% of Connecticut voters support no-excuse absentee voting and 79% support early voting. 

Common Cause, a nonprofit advocating for government transparency that testified in support of the bills, mentioned groups that would be aided by the amendments, including commuters, students and low-income individuals. Executive Director Cheri Quickmire cited the polling from the secretary of the state's office in her testimony.

“These measures enjoy broad support from Connecticut voters across the political spectrum,” she said. “It is time for Connecticut to catch up with the rest of the nation.”

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, endorsed the bills on Monday.

"For anyone working two jobs, or a double shift, or for anyone who relies on public transportation, and for all of the elderly citizens who may not find it convenient or safe to leave their homes, I support no-excuse mail-in voting and early voting in Connecticut," Osten said in a press release. "Most all other states in America have early voting and absentee voting. Our democracy is better when more people interact and vote, and that's exactly what these two bills will accomplish."

s.spinella@theday.com

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