In June, Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill announced that she would not be running for election, opening the door for a slew of candidates to express interest in the position.
One of those candidates is Democratic State Rep. Josh Elliott of Hamden. Three other Democratic candidates, State Sen. Matt Lesser of Middletown, State Rep. Hilda Santiago of Meriden, and New Haven Alder Darryl Brackeen Jr., have also formed exploratory committees.
A Republican has not served as Secretary of the State since 1995, but two GOP candidates have thrown their hats in the ring: Brock Weber, an aide to Mayor Erin Stewart of New Britain, and Dominic Rapini, a senior account manager at Apple.
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with Elliott about his campaign and priorities if elected.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Why are you exploring a run for Secretary of the State?
There are two major aspects to the Secretary of the State position, the business side and the elections side. From a business perspective, I’ve been in business for the last decade and have had plenty of interaction with the Secretary of the State website, so I bring experience to this race as someone who has interacted with the state as a business owner and someone who has run an organization of 100 or so people with my natural food stores in Hamden and Shelton.
On the elections side, while we all agree that we need better voting-at-home mechanisms, my proposals for that are more in line with what Colorado and Washington do. I think we should be able to vote 30 days out, and that people shouldn’t need to register for a ballot, they should automatically get one. I’m also making ranked choice voting and voting for the incarcerated a priority of mine as well, and those are not as mainstream, but they are important issues.
What role would you play as Secretary of the State in getting some of those policy proposals through the legislature?
Within the domain of an agency you run, you have outsize influence over any related legislation. I would not be actively in the room pressing a green or red button, but just the fact of getting elected on a very specific message lends credence to those policy priorities. It’s a bully pulpit and a way to get that message out there, and is a position to talk to people in the legislature and other offices.
Are there ways in which you would handle the role differently than the outgoing Secretary of the State, Denise Merrill?
No, I think she’s done a really good job. It’s important that whoever takes over the role of Secretary of the State follows in her footsteps, especially with the modernization of the office with regard to business, which has been really impressive. I might push for additional legislative priorities, but I would not do anything dramatically differently than Denise.
If Secretary Merrill wasn’t able to get her legislative priorities across the finish line this past session, what makes you think that you would be able to get additional policy proposals through?
It’s more important than anything to keep conversations going, because you never know when the stars are going to align and the right people will be in the right place to make something happen. It’s not that I would have a better sense of the legislative process than Denise, because she was the majority leader and had decades of experience. The idea that I would come in and do legislative work better than her is false, because there is no way I could do that. I think that all of my colleagues are great, but I don’t know if any of us could do that.
I think that what is most important is keeping ideas alive. When I got the bill making telephone calls free for incarcerated people passed, I didn’t attribute getting that bill passed to my being an exceptionally gifted legislator. I just kept the idea alive. It had cycled through three or four times in the last 30 years, and it just happened to be the right time and place where criminal justice reform was a priority for voters.
Similarly, vote-at-home issues have come up as constitutional amendments in the past and failed, but now that we are in a pandemic, we might be more likely to have success at the ballot box with a constitutional amendment, not because legislators are more adept, but because people are paying more attention. So much of this work has to do with time and place.
What differentiates you from your potential Democratic opponents?
I can talk about Sen. Lesser and Rep. Santiago because I work with them, and all I’ll say is that they’re phenomenal candidates who are going to work really hard. An exciting aspect of this race is that no matter what happens, I know we’re going to have a strong Secretary of the State.
As far as what differentiates me, I think my experience as a business owner and knowledge of how to run an agency sets me apart. On the voting side, I’m happy to be pushing extremely progressive policy because that is what I’ve done from the beginning, and it’s what drives me. I can say that I think I have all of these bona fides, but that’s not really going to be my focus and priority. My priority is going to be policy, and if it turns out everyone agrees with me on policy, that, to me, is a win. It doesn’t necessarily need to be me, but I do think I’m a strong advocate for the policies I endorse.
Voter fraud has been a political flashpoint nationally, and there have been allegations of fraud in Connecticut, particularly around the federal indictment of a Bridgeport city council member for forging signatures on absentee ballots. Do you see voter fraud as a serious issue here?
Every study we’ve seen leads us to believe that voter fraud is a very small problem in the overall scope of running elections, so while I think it’s important to address it, it’s also important to not blow it out of proportion. I think there are ways we can have a productive conversation about this without necessarily saying there is rampant fraud. For people who are very concerned about voter fraud, they should keep in mind that the risk far outweighs any sort of reward, because there are very significant repercussions to conducting voter fraud – it’s a felony punishable by prison time. In Bridgeport specifically, it really comes down to the voters. We need to be really careful about training town registrars, and local officials need more training and resources.
What do you say to people who think the 2020 election was stolen, and how would you work to restore trust in elections systems?
When people say that the election was stolen, it can mean a lot of different things, and I think you have to be balanced in how much credence you give to the people who just happen to be the loudest. I’d liken this to the issue of mask or vaccine mandates. We can’t just devote all of our time and energy to the people who are most against the idea of collective public health, and similarly, we can’t change the entire election system because a few people are yelling very loudly that there has been election fraud. I take it seriously, and try to ensure transparency in the process, but part of the job of being in government is knowing that you’re not going to win everybody over every single time, and to not to get too distracted by the noise.
How would you work to get more people engaged in voting?
One aspect of voting I’ve looked at a number of times is the idea of pre-registering people in high school. I believe we should be able to vote at 16. In countries where voting at 16 is legal, they don’t have any turmoil as a result, and for people concerned about kids just voting the way their parents do, 40 percent of kids would vote differently than their parents. If we get people into voting earlier, we get people into voting for a lifetime, and I think the public school system is a great place to get people more engaged civilly. If voting starts at 18, that’s when most kids are leaving high school. It makes sense to me to get people engaged while we have them as a captive audience.