The Connecticut Senate voted 35-1 to give its approval to the bill that would expand absentee voting during the 2020 November election after a lengthy debate Tuesday.
Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, raised two amendments that the Senate voted down. One would have removed the special ballot boxes the Secretary of the State’s office bought for absentee ballot collections.
The other would have prevented the Secretary of the State from mailing out “unsolicited” absentee ballot applications, which some Republicans have criticized Secretary of the State Denise Merrill for doing ahead of the August primary election.
Sampson voted in favor of the bill. Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, was the only senator to vote against it. Bradley warned that absentee ballots can be corrupted with “manipulation, trickery and outright deception,” saying absentee voting is the reason Bridgeport is labeled corrupt.
On Thursday, the House voted 144 to 2 to pass the bill, after voting down two Republican amendments.
Although every state representative — with the exceptions of State Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, R-Bristol, and State Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol — voted in favor of the bill, several Republican members expressed concern that special absentee ballot boxes were not secure and that local election clerks would be overwhelmed.
The legislation would allow all eligible Connecticut voters to vote by absentee ballot and would require town clerks to designate drop boxes where voters can submit absentee ballots.
The Senate will consider the bill when it convenes on Tuesday.
The bill would also require registrars to designate at least one location for election day registration, and allow them to designate more. It would also allow voters who didn’t have their registrations processed by 8 p.m. on election day to vote as long as they were in line by that time. Those provisions, if adopted, would remain in force after the 2020 elections.
“The bill before us attempts to make changes to voting procedures so that the sacred act can be maintained and carried on through these unprecedented times,” said Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, who presented the bill.
The drop boxes were a point of contention for several Republican representatives.
Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, said that U.S. Post Office drop boxes were changed to have a thinner slot because of concerns over mail fishing. The absentee ballot drop boxes resemble the older mailboxes, and leave room for people to tamper with the boxes.
“What concerns me about these ballot boxes, is there’s no security on them,” Mastrofrancesco said. “The hole to put the ballot in is quite large. Anybody could throw a bottle of water in there. Anybody could put something in there to try to take ballots out.”
Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said that Wallingford had moved the lock box inside the vestibule of the town building to secure it, but the Secretary of State’s Office quickly told them to move it outside, he said. He said he doesn’t think the boxes are meant to replace mail.
“If the purpose of these boxes is to allow for a ballot to be dropped off, as opposed to entering into an enclosed office space and giving it to the town clerk and being registered, there’s no reason that we have that process from 9 to 5, in a secure location,” Candelora said.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said that mailboxes and ballot drop boxes clearly had vulnerabilities, and that there are possible risks with either. He cited statistics for mail-related crimes: 2,067 mail theft convictions in 2019, along with 67 convictions for people trying to mail restricted items like weapons.
Ritter said he’s voted by absentee ballot a few times, and there’s the risk that the mail carrier who picks up his ballot could be assaulted and someone could run off with the mail, including his ballot.
“So now we assume that this ballot box that’s sitting there is like this target for people, that there’s these criminals sitting there and going, ‘Tonight. I get my revenge. I will destroy the ballot box, and I will deprive 11 people in the town of Coventry, the right to vote,’” Ritter said. “It doesn’t happen, and if it does happen, it could happen to a mailbox too.”
Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, said clerks will be overwhelmed by the number of absentee ballots they receive, and questioned how municipalities will be reimbursed for the added costs of counting more absentee ballots. He said a clerk in Bristol had said the state is not equipped to handle the volume of absentee ballots it would see.
Fox said the bill increased lead time to give clerks more time to count ballots, such as being able to start counting ballots at 6 a.m. on Election Day, instead of at 11 a.m. as usually required.
Before voting to approve the bill, the House voted to approve an amendment that would ratify as law Gov. Ned Lamont’s May 20 executive order expanding absentee voting for the August primary elections, over Republican objections.
Candelora said the amendment is an attempt to frustrate a lawsuit filed by a group of Republican candidates running in August primaries to stop Lamont’s order from expanding absentee voting in that election.
Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Robinson dismissed the lawsuit on Monday, but the CT Mirror reports that attorneys representing the plaintiffs filed a new suit in Superior Court and will appeal Robinson’s decision to a panel of Supreme Court justices.
“I don’t think we should be operating this way, where we are actually assisting the executive branch in disposing of legislation that is properly before the courts, that should be adjudicated through the courts,” Candelora said.
Ritter said that no judge who has heard the lawsuit has accepted the argument that the order exceeds Lamont’s executive authority. The amendment is a “double guarantee” that the results of the August primary won’t be challenged because of absentee votes, as judges and the legislature both agreed with the executive order, Ritter said.
“To me, a ‘no’ vote is tempting in your own mind, or hoping that somehow, someone says, ‘You shouldn’t be allowed to vote by absentee ballot,’” he said.
The House voted down two Republican-sponsored amendments: one that would require that any federal funds the state received for COVID-related election expenses be used to ensure safe in-person voting and to reimburse municipalities, the other would bar the Secretary of the State from mailing “unsolicited” absentee ballot applications.