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House passes bill rolling back absentee voting restrictions

The state House on Monday passed a bill expanding absentee voting provisions.

Twenty-three Republicans joined 94 Democratics in voting for the legislation, 117 to 28, sending it to the Senate for consideration. Republicans cast all the opposing votes.

The measure allows the state to implement what in many ways is no-excuse absentee voting without having to go through the full constitutional-amendment process, which demands changes be put to referendum. The legislation expands on the illness provision for absentee voting by saying a disability or general illness are now sufficient excuses to vote by absentee ballot. 

Among the Republicans voting for the bill were Reps. Kathleen McCarty of Waterford, Holly Cheeseman of East Lyme and Greg Howard of Stonington. 

The House approved a no-excuse absentee voting resolution earlier in May, but could not reach the 75% threshold of votes needed to put the question on the Election Day ballot in 2022. Without the 75% of both the House and Senate voting in favor of the resolution, legislators will have to revisit the question in either 2023 or 2024. If both chambers pass the no-excuse absentee voting measure this session, when the question is revisited, only a simple majority vote in the House and Senate would be needed to put the change to Connecticut voters in a 2024 referendum. 

On Monday, proponents framed the bill as a way to better align state statute with the state constitution. Democrats argued that while state statute requires voters to claim some sort of illness in order to vote by absentee ballot, the constitution doesn’t identify whose sickness or physical disability — such as a family member’s — allows someone to vote that way. The bill also removes the statutory restriction of a voter needing to be absent from their municipality throughout the entire day of an election, allowing people who work all day to vote by absentee ballot even if they are in town on the day of an election. 

As Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, has put it, state statute currently stipulates that people be out of town all day in order to vote by absentee ballot, which bars commuters and home health care workers, for example, from voting that way. 

Asked about the purpose of the legislation given similar bills in the legislature, House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Monday morning during a news conference that the change in statute would be an immediate change, whereas constitutional amendments take years. He also said this legislation is “a little more narrow” than no-excuse absentee voting. 

“No-excuse absentee balloting would take away the idea of any kind of description,” Ritter said. “It could be for anything. It solves a lot of the problem, but if we pass a constitutional amendment, it would be broader.” 

Supporters of the legislation also admit that the change in statute is a stopgap measure providing for no-excuse absentee voting until the proposed constitutional change is favored by the public and codified into law, or defeated by voters.

Republicans argued that Democrats were skirting the constitutional process in order to enact policy before 2024, but Democrats pointed to Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order from last year functionally allowing for no-excuse absentee voting for all Connecticut voters due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The order was challenged in court by conservatives but ultimately upheld by the state Supreme Court. The court determined that the constitutional sickness provision for absentee voting could be applied more broadly beyond the individual. 

Democrats say the bill enfranchises people or home care workers who have to take care of sick, homebound people, as well as people who are generally afraid of getting sick if they go to the polls. 

Multiple Republican-led amendments to the legislation failed.

Some Republicans raised concerns about mass mailing of absentee ballot applications, as was done last year by the Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s office in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Merrill and other Democratic leaders have said there are no plans for similar action in the future. 

s.spinella@theday.com

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