While voting policies nationwide are trending increasingly towards allowing voters to cast their ballots before election day, Connecticut’s state constitution includes rare language which prohibits the practice. That should change, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said Wednesday.
“It sounds like people are going to start voting with their feet, as they say,” Merrill said. “That’s happening already with absentee ballots. The number of people voting absentee is increasing, which is one of the reasons we need to look at a constitutional amendment.”
Merrill’s comments came after an elections task force meeting and Q and A session with elections expert Doug Chapin, director of the elections program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Chapin said it’s only a matter of time before early voting is the norm and state’s should adapt their laws to reflect that.
“This notion of voters coming in to one place on one day and dropping ballots into one box, either real or imagined, is very much a thing of the past,” he said. “We need to make sure that our laws either explicitly account for the new developments in the field or are sufficiently flexible so that the people who know how those procedures can work without the black letter of the law.”
Connecticut’s law is anything but flexible. In most states voting policy is a matter of statute, so legislatures are free to make laws regarding absentee and early voting. But Connecticut’s constitution lays out specific excuses one must provide in order to be eligible for an absentee ballot.
The fact that the language is written into the constitution precludes the legislature writing statute to allow residents to vote before election day.
“That’s why we’ve been seeking and will continue to seek a constitutional amendment so that we can do these things. But Connecticut is really hamstrung,” Merrill said.
Changing the constitution is designed to be a lengthy process with high hurdles.
First a bill to take the absentee ballot language out of the constitution would have to pass both chambers of the General Assembly with three-fourths majority. The change to the constitution would then have to be put to a public vote during the next state election. If the public approved the change by a simple majority, the legislature would then be free to write statute regarding early voting.
However, if the measure did not receive the three-fourths support, it could be passed with a simple majority but only if it passed in two consecutive General Assemblies with an intervening election. In that case it wouldn’t see a public vote until the 2014 elections.
“It’s a long process to change the constitution so we need to get going on it,” Merrill said. “People are just going to start moving in that direction anyway.”
She said she attempted to raise the issue during this year’s session but the legislature, its hands primarily tied with budgetary issues, never got to it. Assuming it is raised next session and passed with a three-fourths majority, the constitutional change could find its way on to voter ballots for the 2012 election.
House Minority Leader Larry Cafero said the Republican Caucus is not opposed to the idea of removing the constitutional restrictions on absentee voting. He said they had proposed an a measure to do that in a previous legislative session.
“We felt we weren’t reinventing the wheel. There is already a process in place for absentee voting,” he said.
People who are out of town during voting hours or overseas can vote by absentee, so can people who are disabled or sick, Cafero said.
Allowing everyone to cast absentee votes would recognize that the world has changed, he said. People now lead complex and busy lives and it can be difficult to get to a polling station on the given day, he said.
“I might want to vote on that day but have I have this active life that might prevent me from getting there. Why not vote by absentee?” he said.
What Cafero did not want to see was the creation of a third voting class called early voting. It is simpler and less confusing to the public just to call it no-excuse absentee voting, he said.
Chapin said that the state election officials’ unenviable task of reforming its voting system will be complicated but it presents a great opportunity for more substantial changes.
“You all really have the opportunity to help us completely rethink the electoral process. The combination of the 2000 election and the recent fiscal crunch really is giving us something on the order of a do-over,” he said.