Parties Split on Elections Legislation

The future of voting in Connecticut appears caught between two visions — Democrats who want to expand access to voting as much as possible, and Republicans who want to implement measures that would make voting more securely regulated. 

State Sen. Will Haskell, D-Weston, said that since the November election, he gets a call at least once a day from a constituent asking why Connecticut doesn’t allow things like early voting or no-excuse absentee ballots. 

“People really appreciated the ability to vote from the comfort and safety of their own home,” said Haskell. “Because of antiquated voting procedures, we are set to move backward.” 

State Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said he thinks these measures will be important for people who can’t get to the polls on election day — individuals who work multiple jobs, for instance. 

But allowing for early voting and no-excuse ballots would require a statewide referendum and an amendment to the constitution. The legislature voted once, in 2019, to hold a referendum on early voting. They would need a majority vote in this legislative session to put a referendum on the ballot in 2022. 

“Connecticut is one of the four least accessible, most regressive states when it comes to our voting laws,” said Palm. 

This session, State Rep. Christine Palm, D-Chester, proposed a bill that would put out a referendum allowing no-excuse absentee balloting.

“Connecticut is one of the four least accessible, most regressive states when it comes to our voting laws,” said Palm. 

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill has pointed to six states — Connecticut, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky and Mississippi — have neither early voting nor no-excuse absentee ballots.

No-excuse absentee ballots did go to referendum in 2014 in Connecticut, when it narrowly failed. Lesser said he doesn’t anticipate that happening again. 

“I think the public is in a very different place now,” he said. 

Making the process secure 

Not everyone agrees that expanding options for voting should be the focus of this session. State Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, said she thinks the state needs to win back public confidence. 

“There’s so much distrust right now in the election process,” she said. 

Mastrofrancesco said she heard complaints from people in her district who received absentee ballot applications in November for individuals who didn’t live in their household. She said that mistrust in the election process could discourage people from voting altogether.  

She believes the state needs stricter controls, like requiring people to present identification at the polls. 

State Sen. Robert Sampson, R-Meriden, agreed with the need for photo identification. He disagreed with the idea that it was difficult for people to obtain photo IDs, and said the state could even put aside funding to supplement the cost of getting one.

For individuals who don’t provide identification, Sampson said, there should be an audit on election day.

“In Connecticut we have a long record of minor cases of voter fraud, and I don’t think we should ignore them,” said Sampson.

He’d also like to see a verification system for signatures on absentee ballots. 

“We really don’t know who is completing an absentee ballot,” said Sampson. 

Sampson did say, however, that many Republicans are open to the idea of having a limited period of early voting — three days or even seven days before the election — as long as there are some parameters around it. 

Lesser said there has not been any evidence of voter fraud as a significant problem throughout the state, a premise that Sampson disagreed with. 

“In Connecticut we have a long record of minor cases of voter fraud, and I don’t think we should ignore them,” said Sampson. 

Expanding the voter rolls 

Other proposals would expand voting rights to a broader population. Haskell proposed a bill lowering the voting age for municipal elections to 16. Young people, he said, should have a right to vote on issues regarding their school district, or environmental policies. 

Haskell said that sixteen-year-olds add to municipal budgets — those with jobs contribute payroll taxes, and they pay sales tax when they buy things at local stores. 

While Lesser hasn’t proposed lowering the voting age for any elections, he does want to allow young people to pre-register at age 16.  

“Most people don’t stay in prison for the rest of their lives,” Winfield said. “The things we vote on will have an impact on them.” 

“People who are registered to vote are more likely to vote,” said Lesser.

State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, is also reviving a bill giving prison inmates the right to vote while still incarcerated.

“Most people don’t stay in prison for the rest of their lives,” Winfield said. “The things we vote on will have an impact on them.” 

Mastrofrancesco disagrees. “It’s part of their punishment that they can’t vote,” she said. 

Winfield also wants to end what he calls “prison-based gerrymandering,” by counting inmates in the district where they resided before being incarcerated, rather than among the census population in the area where the prison is located. He said the representatives in the prison districts rarely do anything to serve these inmates’ needs.

Electors

Several legislators have raised bills challenging the role of the state’s presidential electors. 

Connecticut has seven electoral college votes. In a presidential election, the candidate who wins the majority of votes statewide gets all seven of those votes. 

Representative Kurt Vail, R-Stafford, would like to see the five Connecticut electors who represent the five house congressional districts vote for the candidate who won the majority of the vote in his or her district. Nebraska and Maine use a similar procedure. 

“I think it’s a neat concept,” he said. “[It] gives each area a little more of a voice.” 

Lesser has raised a bill that would remove “faithless electors” — electoral college members who pledge to vote for one candidate, but then vote for another — and nullify their votes.

“The electors who go forward in good faith need to keep their word,” said Palm, who co-sponsored the bill. 

Fifteen states have a similar law. While Lesser said that Connecticut has not had this problem, he added that the faithless elector problem “is real.” 

Sampson, however, said a law like this negates the purpose of the electoral college, and he said that sometimes there are circumstances where an elector would have to vote contrary to the people’s will. 

A broader discussion on voting

Lesser said he thinks voting reform is going to be a priority in the legislature this term. While he considers early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots to be “low-hanging fruit,” he said he would really like to start a broader discussion about voting rights.

Lesser proposed a “Voting Rights Act” in Connecticut, modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The bill would give courts, regional and local governments a greater ability to respond to concerns about barriers to a person’s ability to vote — particularly discriminatory practices like vote dilution and racial gerrymandering.

Sampson said he’s not sure that those things are a problem in Connecticut, although he believes that both Republicans and Democrats try to draw districts in a way that benefits them.

But Lesser said what he’s really trying to do is start a conversation.

“I think we just need to change the legal way we approach voting in Connecticut as more of a right that is universal,” he said. “ Just making sure that voting rights are the same in Greenwich and Groton and Goshen, and every town in the state.”

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