HARTFORD – Next year, Connecticut voters will have 14 days before election day to cast their ballots in-person after lawmakers approved new early voting regulations outlined in a constitutional amendment supported by voters in the 2022 elections.
The State Senate voted 27-7 in favor of creating an early voting period on Tuesday night, which proponents say brings Connecticut in line with most other states in giving voters more time to go to the polls.
But while five Republicans joined Democrats in support of the regulations, some said they were cut out of the process of setting up early voting. The bill was also criticized for placing an expensive unfunded mandate on towns and cities to run elections for an additional two weeks, and for only requiring one early polling place in each municipality, limiting voter access.
The new regulations were already approved by the State House earlier in May by a 107-35 vote, with 15 Republicans voting joining Democrats in favor of the measure.
Voters supported the constitutional amendment in 2022 with 60.53 percent of the vote in favor early voting, leaving lawmakers with the task of writing rules for voters to cast their ballots before election day.
The bill lawmakers approved requires a 14-day voting period for general elections, 7 days for most primaries, and four days for special elections and presidential primaries. It requires each municipality to set up at least one early voting location, and allows them to set up more.
State Sen. Jorge Cabrera, D-Hamden, said his parents always reminded him how important it is to vote, but getting to the polls was always a rush, he said.
“I had two working parents, and there was a lot to do in our home,” Cabrera said. “What we’re doing here today will really help many families like my family, who have a mountain of responsibility, and just want to participate in democracy.”
But some Republicans questioned whether the Democrats plan was the best way to implement early voting.
State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said he is in favor of early voting in some form, given that voters approved it. But he said he envisioned something that looked more like election day with multiple precincts open where people could vote, just spread out over a few more days.
“Some of my fellow Republicans, who may not support this bill in the end… we’re not standing in the way of progress, we’re not standing in the way of voter’s access,” Sampson said. “What we’re doing is we’re standing for good policy, and for doing it the right way.”
Sampson said that while proponents hail the bill for expanding access to voters, the bill only requires each municipality to have one early voting precinct. On election day, they have several precincts open so people can vote near where they live, he said. Taking that away makes it harder for people who don’t drive to vote early, and it creates confusion when people assume they can vote where they usually do, he said.
State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, the co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said that the bill does allow towns and cities with more than 20,000 people to set up additional precincts.
But Sampson argued that the cost of the program is already prohibitive for municipalities to open one location for 14 days, and they wouldn’t volunteer to spend more money to open additional locations.
A fiscal note for the bill warned that it would mean “significant ongoing labor costs to the state and municipalities,” and noting that since the bill doesn’t say anything about labor costs, it assumed they would fall to the municipality.
Flexer said Democrats are working to include funding for early voting in the biennial budget set to be voted on next week, and that the Secretary of the State’s office will work to set up a program to fund municipal early voting costs. But Sampson argued that isn’t guaranteed to continue, since it’s not required by the bill.
“What happens in the out years?” Sampson asked. “I mean, can we legitimately rely on the State of Connecticut to continue to fund the towns to have more polling locations for 14 days of additional voting?”
State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, one of the Republicans who voted in favor of the bill, questioned why lawmakers were rushing to put together an early voting plan instead of taking the time to work out a solution for how everything would be funded.
“I’ve heard many times that Oregon has done early voting, that other states have partaken in this, but Connecticut has not,” Hwang said. “Connecticut is the land of steady habits, and what you’re going to do by this proposal is create a jolt of a brand new system, that if any, any small incidents of failure or a system breakdown, you have undermined the integrity [of the process].”
State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, the Senate Republican leader, said that the fact lawmakers couldn’t come to a unanimous agreement on early voting signals that it’s a partisan issue.
State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, the Senate Democratic leader, said it is simply the will of the voters, who overwhelmingly voted for an early voting constitutional amendment. Connecticut would also join almost every other state in the U.S. in offering some form of early voting, he said.
“Our democracy is only as weak or as strong as the ability for people to vote,” Duff said. “We want more people to come out and exercise their rights. We want more people to make the choices there.”