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Public weighs in on bill to expand absentee voting in Connecticut

The Connecticut Legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee listened to public comments Tuesday on a bill that would expand absentee voting provisions ahead of the November general election.

Gov. Ned Lamont already issued an executive order allowing all registered voters in Connecticut to vote with absentee ballots in the August primary.

Connecticut has stringent guidelines on who can vote absentee, which Lamont softened due to the pandemic. The Secretary of the State's Office mailed absentee ballot applications to registered voters in the state and has promised to pay the postage for the applications, the ballots and their return.

On Tuesday, An Act Concerning Absentee Voting at the 2020 State Election and Election Day Registration received overwhelming support from Connecticut residents who testified. With Lamont’s executive authority under the state’s public health emergency due to expire in September, he has urged lawmakers to lift absentee ballot restrictions for the general election, as well. The new bill is set to be voted on during the legislative special session, which begins Thursday. During a news conference Tuesday, Lamont urged passage of the bill.

The main change to Connecticut’s statutes in the bill would be an added absentee voting provision deeming “the sickness of COVID-19” as justification for absentee voting in 2020. All other absentee voting provisions include the possessive adjectives “his or her.” For example: “his or her active service with the armed forces of the United States.” The new, COVID-19-related provision purposefully doesn’t include “his or her” so as to be vague enough to apply to those who fear contracting the virus, not just those who actually have it.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill spoke at length during the listening session.

The bill “makes it possible for all registered voters to cast their ballot by absentee ballot due to COVID-19,” Merrill said. “It allows them to return those ballots in a secure drop box in their town, and it allows voters who are in line for Election Day registration at 8 o'clock to cast their ballots. ... It protects voters in nursing homes, and it gives election officials flexibility in reporting the election results.”

She asked that the legislature extend the use of these drop boxes beyond 2020. She said the majority of Connecticut voters want to be able to cast their votes by absentee ballot without an excuse every year.

Although dozens of people who testified backed the bill, many lobbied for the COVID-19 provision to be more specific in allowing absentee voting for people who are concerned about the pandemic.

ACLU Connecticut policy counsel Kelly Moore said “a better approach would be to make the absentee voting excuse broader, allowing absentee voting by reason of widespread illness without limiting language.”

Moore concurred with other people who offered testimony in saying expanded absentee voting should be a permanent alteration to how Connecticut votes, rather than solely for the 2020 elections.

State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, favors language specifying worry of contracting or spreading COVID-19 as a reason for absentee voting in the bill, but she supports it either way and calls it an upgrade from current law.

“No one in Connecticut should have to choose between safety and voting,” Palm said. “I’ve heard from many constituents who are gravely concerned about having to make that choice, and it’s the General Assembly’s job to make sure people can vote safely, legally, and with confidence.”

The bill discussed on Tuesday also stipulates that if someone is in line before 8 p.m., they can register to vote on Election Day. Judy Lhamon of the League of Women Voters Connecticut was one of several people who expressed approval of this move.

“We are committed to removing as many barriers as possible to prospective voters who wish to access and exercise their right to vote,” Lhamon said. “Therefore we support the section of this bill that improves the electoral process by changing Election Day registration regulations to permit persons in line by 8 p.m. on Election Day to register and vote.”

Advocates for minority communities, and advocates for the elderly, said state lawmakers must pass this bill so that groups hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic can still take part in the political process in November.

John Erlingheuser, the AARP advocacy director in Connecticut, said all voters should be eligible to vote absentee, and he is wary of all voters, not only those age 65 and up, of going to polling places in November. He added that in-person voting also puts poll workers at risk. Towns in southeastern Connecticut have been grappling with what to do about at-risk poll workers for several months.

The legislation also seeks to use gender-neutral terms, such as “elector,” instead of “his or her” before the absentee voting provisions.

Jonathan Perloe, a leader of Voter Choice Connecticut, a group pushing for ranked-choice voting, took time to rebut claims that increased absentee voting will cause an uptick in voter fraud.

“Numerous studies show that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent,” Perloe said. “An initiative supported by the Carnegie and Knight Foundations documented just 196 cases of alleged election fraud in Connecticut over the years 2000 to 2012, during which time approximately 10 million votes were cast.”

Republican Chairman J.R. Romano recently raised the issue of voter fraud. President Donald Trump also has said mail-in voting will lead to more fraud.

“Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Election in our nations history - unless this stupidity is ended,” Trump tweeted. “We voted during World War One & World War Two with no problem, but now they are using Covid in order to cheat by using Mail-Ins!”

Nationwide, election officials have refuted Trump’s contentions, and experts have said there is no evidence of widespread absentee voting fraud.

Republicans have filed multiple legal challenges to expanded absentee voting, which currently are in Connecticut courts.

s.spinella@theday.com

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