The formal process of amending the state constitution to extend voting rights has begun in earnest.
On Monday, the General Assembly's Government Administration and Elections Committee heard public testimony on two bills proposing constitutional changes to the state to allow for early voting and voting without excuse for absence. The hearing prompted hundreds of people to submit written testimony in support of or against the bills.
As an emergency measure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state legislature instituted an essentially no excuse in the 2020 election.
The move ended with the creation of a record attendance. It also caused lawmakers, activists and election officials, among others, to not only question the future of the right to vote in Connecticut absenteeism, but also to support the expansion of the right to vote in general.
Secretary of State Denise Merrill has said she is "more convinced than ever that giving people more options when it comes to voting is the right choice." She testified in favor of both bills on Monday and then answered questions from lawmakers for over an hour.
She said COVID-19 "exposed the fundamental rigors of our electoral system." She called the results of Connecticut's changed electoral processes in 2020 "a resounding success".
"More than 1.8 million people – a record number of Connecticut voters – cast their votes in November, and more than 650,000 of them chose to vote in absentia – 35% of the total votes cast," she said. "And now Connecticut voters are wondering, and they are contacting my office to ask, why can't they choose to vote this way in every election? Why don't they have the choice between early personal vote," absentee or personal vote on election day? Why indeed. "
The state house and senate passed a resolution in 2019 to allow early voting, but the vote in the senate did not have enough margin to put the question on the ballot. A simple majority of votes in each chamber would propose the idea to Connecticut voters in a 2022 referendum. Voters rejected a constitutional amendment for early vote in 2014. Merrill said Monday the ballot box issue was unclear for that referendum vote.
The Early Voting Constitutional Amendment, co-sponsored by State Representative Christine Conley, D-Groton, adds a key phrase to the current text that removes the language outlining the specific reasons required for absenteeism so that everyone can vote in absentia. any reason whatsoever. Conley co-sponsored both measures.
Proponents hope this bill will put the issue of no-excuse voting on the agenda in the 2022 elections.
Critics such as Senator Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, illustrated the divide between Republicans and Democrats in terms of voting rights.
Sampson said the proposed bills lacked details such as how long the early voting period would be. Merrill responded by saying that the final details and language of the resolutions are up to the legislature.
The committee received overwhelming support in submitting testimony to the amendments, but there were some opponents who felt that early voting and voting without excuse could sacrifice the integrity of the election.
Merrill defended the correctness of the recent Connecticut election and downplayed claims of voter fraud or vote tampering. Both Republicans and Democrats agreed that there was no widespread fraud or fraud significant enough for the recent election to take place. Election officials across the country refuted allegations of rampant voter fraud alleged by former President Donald Trump after the 2020 election.
State Representative Christine Palm, D-Chester, who is backing the bills, noted that "supposedly progressive Connecticut" has some of the most outdated voting laws in the country. She asked Merrill if she ever had to defend Connecticut when she spoke to other secretaries of state because of the strict voting laws.
Connecticut lags behind 43 states that allow early and / or absenteeism votes. Only Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Connecticut need a specific reason to vote no.
Merrill repeatedly noted at the hearing that this legislation is not biased in nature.
Utah, Colorado and Oregon hold elections for all mail. Louisiana, Georgia and Massachusetts have early votes. Idaho, Ohio and Vermont have personal absentee ballots without excuse, ”she said. "Red states, purple states, and blue states almost all allow their voters to easily vote ahead of election day."
Clerks of the Connecticut Voters' Association, President Sue Larsen, did not take sides to either bill. In her written testimony, she said that both resolutions are "major changes in the electoral process."
“Our position, regardless of whether or not to move forward with these policy decisions, is that if a vote is required by this body and the general electorate, it is properly implemented to ensure the integrity of the process,” said Larsen. by. "Registrars or Voters are election officials of CT, with a wide range of expertise, and we ask to be involved in all discussions of how to establish a fair, transparent and accessible voting system."
Election officials in Southeast Connecticut have said it would take a lot of money and preparation to overhaul Connecticut's election process. In November 2020, Norwich City Clerk Betsy Barrett said that if that year's experience of thousands more absent ballots becomes the norm in future elections, city and town clerks will have to make plans to hire additional staff or add hours to the high volumes of ballots in absence and ballots as delivered. Norwich Republican Clerk Dianne Slopak offered a similar assessment in January of this year.
"If they want to do what they want to do without excuse and vote early, they have to overhaul the system," she said.
Merrill's office held a poll in January that found that 73% of Connecticut voters are in favor of voting without excuse in absence and 79% for early voting.
Common Cause, a nonprofit advocating for transparency with the government that testified in support of the bills, named groups that would be helped by the changes, including commuters, students, and those on low incomes. Executive Director Cheri Quickmire cited the Secretary of State's poll in her testimony.
"These measures have widespread support from Connecticut voters across the political spectrum," she said. "It's time for Connecticut to catch up with the rest of the nation."
State Senator Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, approved the bills Monday.
“For anyone who works two jobs, or a double shift, or anyone who relies on public transportation, and for all older citizens who may not find it easy or safe to leave their homes, I support the no-excuse per post vote and early vote in Connecticut, ”said Osten in a press release. "Most other states in America have early voting and absenteeism votes. Our democracy is better when more people communicate and vote with each other, which is exactly what these two bills will achieve."
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