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    Tuesday, October 04, 2022

    Connecticut House passes bill expanding absentee ballot access

    Hartford — The state House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that redefines “sickness” in general rather than a personal "illness" as an appropriate excuse for absentee voting.

    By a 126-16 vote that included significant bipartisan support from Republicans, the House passed the bill, which Democrats say is meant to allow the state to extend its statutes to match the constitution until the constitution can be amended for no-excuse absentee voting. All 16 "no" votes belonged to Republicans, and included state Reps. Mike France, R-Ledyard, and Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin.

    The state Senate is expected to vote on the measure next week.

    Under the bill, “An Act Revising Certain Absentee Voting Eligibility Statutes,” rather than referring to an individual voter's specific illness, the statutes would just say “sickness.”

    With the broader term, the sickness excuse could apply to fear of catching a disease like COVID-19 and allow for caretakers to vote absentee, House leadership said during a news conference Wednesday morning.

    The summary of the bill describes the language that would be changed in the statutes: “qualified voters may vote by absentee ballot if they are unable to appear at their polling place during voting hours because of (1) sickness, rather than because of their own illness, or (2) physical disability, rather than because of their own physical disability.”

    The bill also will make it so people don’t have to be away from the town where they’re registered to vote all day to vote absentee, and can instead be gone for just part of the day.

    Members of the military, election workers and people with religious reservations can vote absentee as well.

    “Current law authorizes voters to vote absentee for this reason only if they are absent during all hours of voting. The bill requires that absentee ballots be updated to reflect the above changes,” the summary reads.

    The bill is separate from a Senate Bill that has a similar effect — the Senate Bill would extend what is essentially no-excuse absentee voting through the November election, whereas the House bill is a permanent change. It is also separate from when, during the last session, the legislature approved a no-excuse absentee voting resolution but could not reach the 75% threshold of votes needed to amend the constitution and put the question on the ballot in 2022. Since both chambers passed the measure, when the question is revisited during the 2023 session, only a simple majority vote in the House and Senate would put the idea to Connecticut voters in a 2024 referendum.

    “The constitutional amendment addresses no-excuse absentee voting, for this bill you still need the excuse, you need to attest to the fact that you can’t appear for a particular reason,” Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, said Wednesday of the difference between last year’s measure and Wednesday’s bill.

    Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, said last year’s measure would make it “so that any reason is acceptable” for voting absentee. “What this bill is about is the fact that the statutory reasons you can get an absentee ballot are significantly narrower than the ones in the constitution,” he said.

    Nationally and statewide, the issue of absentee voting has become partisan, with many Republicans saying it creates opportunities for voter fraud and Democrats viewing it as a necessary voting right. Far more Democrats than Republicans voted by mail in the 2020 election.

    Republicans introduced several amendments on Wednesday, all of which failed, including one that would have required signature verification, one that would have barred the secretary of the state from mass-mailing absentee ballot applications, and one that would have been more specific about who the “sickness” term refers to.

    Although state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, favored the signature verification amendment and argued that the “sickness” term was too imprecise, she voted in favor of the bill. “I will be supporting this bill because I do believe that voters may still have some insecurity going forward, but I wish we had done this in the appropriate manner,” she said.

    More than 90 people submitted written testimony in support of House Bill 5262 for its public hearing, while more than 73 wrote in opposition. Republicans Sen. Rob Sampson and Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, both of Wolcott, foreshadowed Wednesday’s debate two weeks ago in the Government Administration and Elections Committee when they questioned the security of the state’s election apparatus and worried that new laws expanding absentee voting would weaken election security. Mastrofrancesco said the same on Wednesday.

    Republicans also worried during Wednesday’s debate that the Secretary of the State’s Office again would mass-mail absentee ballot applications, as it had in 2020. There is no language in the bill to that effect, though Democratic leadership acknowledged Wednesday morning that there is also nothing in the bill precluding the secretary of the state from sending out absentee ballot applications. Mastrofrancesco argued that the bill would make it easier for the secretary of the state to mass-mail ballot applications.

    Democrats have said the state is lagging behind in voting accessibility. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said during the public hearing this month that secretaries of other states are surprised at how far behind Connecticut is on voting rights, given its “progressive” reputation.

    s.spinella@theday.com

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