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State Senate passes bill expanding absentee voting provisions

The state Senate passed a bill expanding absentee ballot provisions Tuesday to account for the COVID-19 pandemic ahead of the November general election.

An Act Concerning Absentee Voting and Reporting of Results at the 2020 State Election and Election Day Registration received bipartisan support from legislators, passing on a 35-1 vote, though Republicans argued the bill had holes in terms of election security, and some Democrats said it didn’t go quite far enough in broadening voting rights. Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, was the sole “no” vote.

Gov. Ned Lamont already issued an executive order allowing all registered voters in Connecticut to use absentee ballots in the August primary. He has said he would sign the bill into law.

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.

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.

The bill discussed on Tuesday stipulates that those in line before 8 p.m. can register to vote on Election Day. The legislation also seeks to use gender-neutral terms, such as “elector,” instead of “his or her” before the absentee voting provisions.

The acknowledgment that the pandemic has brought about “unprecedented times,” a phrase used by multiple senators on Tuesday, in attempting to vote during a pandemic, carried the decision.

“What this legislation addresses is the folks who have not been diagnosed with COVID-19, but perhaps they’re immunocompromised, perhaps they are elderly, perhaps they’ve just been watching the news, and they are fearful of venturing into a crowded polling location,” Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, said.

The hourslong discussion on the bill began with Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, directing a series of questions at Haskell. Sampson led a push for two amendments, both of which failed by a 22-14 party line vote. The first would have stopped the state from using ballot boxes outside town halls, the second would have prevented Secretary of the State Denise Merrill from mailing absentee ballot applications to registered voters for November.

Sampson said the Election Day registration could work counter to the bill's aim of preventing the spread of COVID-19 because, he asserted, the move will bring longer lines on Election Day.

Sampson couched some of his complaints in the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality taking place throughout the country. “Elsewhere in this country are people who have taken over entire city blocks, taken over the police station in that city — I don’t think that they’re going to be concerned with destroying a ballot box if it becomes a politically charged election,” he said. “I believe people have a legitimate concern over whether our elections are going to end up affected by some of the tremendous strife that is occurring across our country.”

Several Republican senators aside from Sampson raised the issue of voter fraud. President Donald Trump, too, has claimed mail-in voting will lead to more fraud. Trump has voted by mail in multiple elections.

“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 disputed 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.

Sen. Eric Berthel, R-Watertown, denied accusations that Republicans want fewer people to vote, and pointed to the bill in question as an example.

Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich, advocated to adopt these measures, and more robust actions, to allow more people to vote.

“While I support this bill wholeheartedly, it is hardly revolutionary,” Kasser said. “In fact, it’s extremely limited and full of compromises. For instance, it applies only to the November election; it expires at the end of 2020, so if there is a special election required in January 2021, this bill does not apply.”

She said municipalities should be able to count absentee ballots before Election Day.

Connecticut voters will see something of a test run for the bill, which is essentially a continuation of Lamont’s executive order, in the August primary.

s.spinella@theday.com

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