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Legislature should back Merrill’s approach to protect election

The COVID-19 pandemic could keep people from voting. That would be tragic. That is why the public should welcome Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s steps to prepare and assure citizens do not have to choose between their health and voting. But to do it right, she needs the support of the state legislature and the governor.

Making the challenge more difficult is the reality that Connecticut has the most restrictive absentee ballot laws in the country and that the early voting used by other states is prohibited here. These restrictions are rooted in the Connecticut Constitution, meaning the legislature alone cannot change them.

But the legislature, acting with the secretary of the state, can improve the situation now and set the stage for a constitutional amendment that would allow for more comprehensive reforms to improve future elections.

Connecticut has a presidential primary scheduled for Aug. 11. It was originally planned for April 28, then moved to June 2, then to August. We would just as soon see it canceled. The presumptive nominees for the major parties are in place — President Donald Trump for the Republicans and former Vice President Joe Biden for the Democrats.

But Merrill sees no legal avenue to skip the primary.

The bigger challenge, with much larger turnouts, and votes not only for president but for Congress members and state legislators, will come with the Nov. 3 general election. The best-case scenario is that the viral threat is much lower at that time. But with many virology experts predicting another spike in COVID-19 cases in the fall, Merrill is right to be planning instead for worst-case scenarios.

This week Merrill announced her plan. The secretary wants wider use of absentee ballots, working around the restrictions. She has called for advanced planning so local voting officials are ready to handle a substantial increase in absentee ballots.

Where necessary, Merrill wants in-person voting moved to larger venues that will allow voting booths to be safely spaced and can accommodate lines with awaiting voters practicing social distancing. Think school gymnasiums and large cafeterias rather than town hall meeting rooms.

Personal protective equipment will be made available for poll workers and efforts are underway to attract younger polling staff. The ranks of poll workers are now dominated by seniors, their age placing them at a higher risk of serious illness and death from the virus.

In other words, there is much work to be done.

Merrill said she plans to send every eligible voter an absentee ballot application for the primary and general election. But who would be allowed to actually vote absentee? We think, if the viral threat remains, it should be everyone who chooses to do so. But the legislature must act to make that possible.

The state Constitution allows use of an absentee "because of sickness, or physical disability.” A state law puts more meat on those bones, stating, “any person eligible to vote … may vote by absentee ballot if he or she is unable to appear for his or her illness.”

The law also allows use of absentee voting for U.S. Armed forces service; absence from the area on Election Day; physical disability; because your religion forbids secular activity that day; or you’re required to work elsewhere as an election official.

Merrill interprets the “his or her illness” exception to include anyone with “underlying risk factors relevant to COVID-19,” such as the elderly or health compromised.

But if the legislature, meeting in special session this summer, were to remove the “his or her” qualifier, and just refer to “illness,” it would seemingly make anyone eligible for an absentee ballot when an epidemic threatens public health. The legislature also could add an allowance for general absentee use when the governor declares a health emergency.

We call on the legislature to amend the absentee ballot law to make it as least restrictive as possible.

It should also send a constitutional amendment to voters which, if approved, would allow Connecticut to enact the early voting and/or mail-in voting seen in other states. That would both improve participation and make voting safer during a public health or other crisis.

If a three-fourths legislative majority did so in a special session this summer, a constitutional amendment could be on the ballot for voter approval in November. Though we recognize that is unlikely, we would welcome being surprised. Making voting less arduous should be a bipartisan goal.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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