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Denise Merrill, others weigh in on her voting rights record

Denise Merrill has been secretary of the state for a decade but it is her final four-year term that she likely will be remembered for.

Merrill, who informed voters in June that she would not be running for office again, became a leading advocate for making it easier for voters to cast ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Misinformation is feeding sweeping anti-voting rights legislation across the country. I think it's the existential issue in politics today," Merrill said in a July interview in her Capitol Building office. "The fundamental of democracy is that everybody believes in the results of the elections, especially the presidential election."

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, from the beginning of this year until May 14, "at least 14 states enacted 22 new laws that restrict access to the vote." Many of those laws were in reaction to the belief that President Joe Biden didn't defeat Donald Trump.

In the first year of the pandemic, which also was an election year, Merrill, along with Gov. Ned Lamont, spearheaded sweeping changes to the voting process in Connecticut.

Initially through executive order, and later with the approval of the legislature, the definition of “sickness” — one of the legally mandated explanations necessary to cast an absentee ballot — was broadened to include the threat posed by the coronavirus. An election that could have suffered from meager turnout instead saw a record 1.86 million people vote — nearly 80% of registered voters in Connecticut. More than 650,000 Connecticut residents voted by absentee ballot, compared to about 130,000 in the 2016 general election.

Merrill maintains that these measures were taken to protect people’s health and safety while still allowing them to vote with relative ease. Conservative legislators such as state Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, and state Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, have vociferously questioned the wisdom of the COVID-19 measures. Republicans have claimed it’s an attempt by Merrill and Lamont to establish control of state politics for Democrats and filed suits saying the maneuvers were unconstitutional and would lead to increased voter fraud. Those suits were ultimately dismissed.

The outgoing secretary of the state has led efforts for online voter registration, Election Day registration and automatic voter registration through the DMV, as well as advocating for no-excuse absentee voting and early voting. By referendum, state voters could choose to adopt early voting in 2022 and no-excuse absentee voting in 2024.

State Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, has served on the Government Administrations and Election Committee since he began his first term after being elected in 2014, including time as ranking member. France said he thinks it’s a false narrative to say the failed lawsuits prove the pandemic changes constitutional. He and other Republicans argue the changes should have gone through the full legislative process, as early voting and no-excuse absentee voting are.

“There were directions being given out of her office by legal and her chief of staff that were clearly contrary to statute,” he said. “There was no authority for some of the things being given as guidance to registrars and town clerks for how to manage the election.”

He described Merrill as a fierce advocate for her party on election law and said Democrats generally align with her proposals.

“I don’t know if she’s hyper-partisan, but in the past she’s moved very quickly without controls in place to ensure the integrity of the vote,” France said. “The challenge from my perspective is we moved too fast and changed multiple things at once without understanding the consequences of the change we already made.”

During the 2020 election, some local registrars and town clerks complained about the rapid changes and added workload. In a statement to The Day this past week, the Connecticut Town Clerks Association said it has worked closely with Merrill during her three terms.

“Each year there are new changes to election laws, which must be communicated to the clerks to administer our election duties correctly,” the statement, which also praises Merrill for her time in office, reads. “The 2020 election year was unprecedented as clerks issued a historic 665,000 absentee ballots that allowed voters to cast their ballot safely and securely. During 2020 the Town Clerks faced tremendous challenges due to the constant changing Executive Orders in response to COVID-19.”

Merrill said Republican critiques of her record during the pandemic don’t hold weight.

“We were in an emergency situation. The big one they cite is mailing the applications to everyone. Anyone can mail somebody an application for an absentee ballot. So that was kind of ridiculous on its face,” Merrill said. “I don’t think their throwing partisan bombs in the middle of the pandemic was helpful and much less legitimate. I do not regret a single decision we made.”

She added that Republicans often complained that absentee ballots were mailed to everyone, but it was only applications for the ballots.

State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Mansfield, a co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, called Merrill “the perfect leader for us to have during the pandemic.”

“To have an experienced secretary who knew all of the mechanics of our election process here in Connecticut, which is largely a local function, was really critical especially while trying to navigate our state’s incredibly restrictive voting parameters and making sure people had a way to vote and still stay safe,” Flexer said.

Longtime voting advocate

Merrill recalled going to a national convention for secretaries of the state in her first year in office and being shocked by the rhetoric of Kris Kobach, who was secretary of the state in Kansas at the time.

“I was all excited — ‘I’m going get great ideas about how to get people voting.’ I immediately join the voter participation committee. In the first meeting this guy stands up and starts talking about how he’s rooting out fraud and abuse; he wants to get prosecutorial power to be able to take these people to court who have voted illegally; there’s all these illegal immigrants voting in Kansas. I was shocked,” Merrill said. “That was the first time any of us really thought about any of this, and it was very deliberate.”

Merrill has been involved with voting legislation since she joined the legislature as a state representative for the 54th District, representing Mansfield and Chaplin, in 1994.

“I was a pretty radical lefty in those days. I guess I still am to some extent,” Merrill said. She said that while she was in the legislature, she was “somewhat instrumental” in getting public financing passed in Connecticut.

Flexer feels Merrill has been unfairly maligned as partisan and has been as cautious as she has been aggressive in pushing for change.

“She’s been careful around the push for online voting and opening up our systems that way, and I appreciate that because I, like Secretary Merrill, view that as an opportunity as security threats to our system could undermine our confidence in voting,” Flexer said.

'Inquisitive, thoughtful, energetic'

Former state Rep. Diana Urban, who represented Stonington and North Stonington from 2000 to 2018, said Merrill is not partisan.

“She’s about voting rights, and if people call her partisan because of that, I think it’s a reflection of what’s going on nationally, which is very unfortunate,” Urban said.

Merrill hasn’t always been viewed as partisan. She fondly remembers late in her tenure as a state representative when legislators of both parties were polled by Connecticut Magazine and she was voted most effective legislator and most admired by the other side of the aisle. She singled it out as one of her proudest achievements.

Brian Flaherty, a state representative for the 68th District between 1988 and 2005, now executive vice president at Sullivan & Leshane public relations, is one former Republican colleague who praises Merrill.

“We served in the House together, which is when we really got to know each other and developed a really strong respect for each other,” he said. “I think we both appreciated the fact that no one can go it alone in a legislative body, you need to get half of that room plus one to share a cause, to be willing to listen and work with you. If you like going it alone, being a mayor is a good line of work. But if you are inquisitive and thoughtful, which Denise is, energetic, which she is, then you’ll thrive in the state House of Representatives, which she clearly did.”

Public office hasn’t been entirely kind to Merrill. She faced backlash in 2015 when it became clear she was aware of an effort in 2011 to revoke a Bridgeport Democratic Party official’s notary public license after she denied any personal knowledge of the matter. 

She also apologized in 2013 “for using her taxpayer-funded office to email monthly newsletters touting her achievements to thousands of Democratic activists and campaign contributors who could help her win re-election next year,” according to a Hartford Courant story. But these controversies never cost her the support of her party.

Fighting against war and pollution

While talking about how the ethic of voting has changed since she grew up in California in the 1960s, Merrill recalled her part in the movement against the Vietnam War.

“When I grew up, no one would say something like, ‘I don’t think I’ll get around to voting,'” Merrill said. “But people got very cynical about government in the Vietnam War period, and then in the '80s, where we had Reagan telling us the government was bad — so you had a lot of apathy.”

Then how did Merrill become entrenched in politics as a profession? She said she’s considered that question a lot lately.

“What makes me so sure I believe in our system? Even though I was kind of a protester in those days, I was most involved in the environmental movement, and we had some success,” she said. “I learned how to organize and make a difference. You find out you can’t do anything by yourself. When we organized against air pollution, I feel like activism made a difference, and you could still impact your government, and maybe that’s why I hung onto that.”

Before being elected secretary, Merrill was a state representative for 17 years. She was House Majority Leader from 2009 to 2011 and the House Appropriations Committee chair from 2005 to 2009. The University of Connecticut graduate is also licensed to practice law in California. “Her family includes husband Dr. Stephen Leach and his two sons, her three grown children and six grandchildren,” according to her official biography.

Urban said she grew close with Merrill early on in the General Assembly, back before Urban switched parties and became a Democrat. She called Merrill “a renaissance woman. She can do anything.” Like Merrill, Urban is a trained pianist. Urban noted that Merrill passed the California bar exam without a law degree.

“She passed the bar mostly by studying by herself and learning things herself,” Urban said. “Not only that, you want to have some fun? The girl can dance up a storm. You can do rock music with her, it doesn’t have to be classical. Her and I have done that together.”

Urban referred to Merrill as “the kind of gal you want as your best friend. She’s smart and she’s fun. She can be a little fun crazy at times. But when it’s time to get down to work, she is all about it.”

After spending decades in politics, Merrill is ready to lead a life unweighted by the trappings of Hartford, a life of book clubs, gardening, music — she jokes about using her training as a classical pianist to join a band — and history; she has a passion in particular for Connecticut history.

But all this isn’t precisely why Merrill is stepping away from a role that defines her.

“I truly believe these are borrowed jobs. I don’t think that people should stay in office forever, especially because I have a lot of other things I’d like to do,” she said. “I’ve done the things I wanted to do, certainly took me 30 years. I also feel like things are changing. We need some younger people in. Who knows where this whole digital thing is going. The biggest issue facing us right now is the misinformation out there about elections, and there needs to be some new thinking around it.”

Merrill maintains that she has no plans to run for elected office again. But she thinks there’s much going on nationally she could contribute to. She’s interested in elections, civics education, critical race theory and inclusive history.

Former Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona is now the U.S. secretary of education, “so I may have an opportunity to do some more work in that area,” Merrill said. “I don’t know, I just know what I’m interested in, and I have a feeling somebody will call me in.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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