Voters will be asked to approve a measure during the 2024 November elections that will add language to the State Constitution allowing voting by absentee ballot in all cases, after the State Senate voted 26-8 on Tuesday to approve the measure.
State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, chair of the General Administrations and Elections Committee, told senators on Tuesday that the bill’s purpose was to “finally catch us up with so many other states” in allowing no-excuse absentee voting. She said that Connecticut had some of the “toughest restrictions in the country” around voting.
“Voters from all over our state have been asking for more flexibility in being able to participate in our democracy. The right to vote is the most precious right that each and every citizen of this state has,” said Flexer.
Under current law, Connecticut residents who decide to vote using an absentee ballot have to attest that they are doing it because of illness, physical disability or absence from town on the day of the election.
State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, argued against the resolution. He said he was concerned about what the broad move toward absentee balloting would mean for the public’s trust in the elections — something, he said, that has been declining over the last decade.
“The battle is always about access versus the integrity of the vote. That’s where we debate all of the time,” he said. “The fact that each one of us cherishes our ability to cast votes in elections to determine who’s going to represent us, means that those votes have to matter. We have to be able to trust those votes without question.”
Sampson also said he believed that the measure was tantamount to “opening a giant door to ballot harvesting, to mail-in voting and to the things that have brought a rise to those contested elections across the country.”
If voters approve the change to the Constitution, the legislature will still need to pass laws regulating exactly how no-excuse absentee voting will take place. But Sampson said his biggest concern was mail-in voting. He said that in 2020, during the COVID pandemic, mailing out absentee ballot applications cost the state $7.1 million, and that about 184,000 ballot applications during the general election were returned as undeliverable.
“I have some concerns about trying to move our voting process away from the way it’s been traditionally done where people vote on one specific day in person,” he said. “In the last election, we saw all campaigns across this state mailing ballot applications like crazy to people, and also sending out companion mail to say, ‘Yes, you can check the box for sickness. You can vote by absentee.’ It was a mess.”
The question of no-excuse absentee voting appeared on the ballot in 2014 along with a provision for early voting. At the time, voters in the state rejected the idea by what Flexer said she believed to be a small majority. She said she believed the reason for the rejection was confusion among voters.
To place a resolution on the ballot requires a 75 percent supermajority in the House and the Senate in one year, or two consecutive years of a simple majority in both chambers. Last year, the House and Senate passed the resolution with a majority, but failed to gain the 75 percent supermajority.
Republican legislators also criticized the Democratic party for what they saw as failing to work with Republicans. State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said he wished there had been greater agreement between Republicans and Democrats on the resolution.
“I wish we had done it more collaboratively. I wish we had more give and take. I wish we had both sides in unison saying this is the best resolution for moving forward and changing our constitution,” said Hwang.
State Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, said he thought the state should focus on cleaning up its voter rolls and require photo ID for elections.
State Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, said she felt no-excuse absentee balloting actually made elections more fair.
“I had the best voter turnout during COVID when everybody had access to the ballot to mail them out. And I think it encouraged people that they could do an absentee ballot without any special consideration,” said Moore. “If anything, I think it’s the opposite of fraud. I think if everybody has the same access, that it’s more fairness.”
State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, underscored that no-excuse absentee voting was important to expanding access for people who wanted to exercise their right to vote.
“How many times have we had constituents right before election day say to us, ‘I’m supposed to be commuting today to New York City, but I may be back before eight o’clock. I may not be back before eight o’clock, but I don’t want to break the law, so I’m not going to submit an absentee ballot’,” said Duff, “And we should never think that that’s okay.”
He also said he believed the pandemic had changed people’s perspectives on absentee ballots. He noted that in last year’s election, voters approved a statewide question on changing the constitution to allow early voting, which in 2014 they rejected.
“If there’s any indication of [voters’] mood on this issue, all you have to do is look back towards 2020 when people said, ‘How come we haven’t been doing this before?’” said Duff. “The voters will give us that opportunity, that green light if they think that this is a good idea.”