(Updated 3:35 p.m.) Election Day registration, no excuse absentee voting, and online voter registration are just a few of the legislative proposals put forward on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The right to vote is under assault all over the country and there‘s a “crisis of confidence in our democracy,” Merrill said at a Capitol press conference. “In 2011 alone the number of states that have adopted newer restrictive voting laws placing additional barriers in front of the ballot box has tripled.”
In an effort to improve voter turnout and participation in Connecticut, Merrill said she’s asking the legislature to approve Election Day registration, which will allow voters to register the same day as they vote.
Nine states have some form of Election Day registration and Merrill said it has improved turnout an average of 8 to 10 percent in those states.
And while some of the reforms Merrill proposed Monday could have broad bipartisan appeal, Election Day registration may be one of the more controversial issues the legislature ends up tackling this year.
Election Day registration was debated and passed by the House in 2009, but the Senate failed to take it up and even if they had former Gov. M. Jodi Rell was on the fence about whether to sign it if it reached her desk. Rell’s predecessor Gov. John G. Rowland vetoed a similar bill in 2003.
Debate in the House spanned six hours in 2009 and ended with a mostly a party line vote with a few exceptions.
In 2009, Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, said that he understands legislature’s desire to make voting easier for voters, but on the other hand it needs to protect the integrity of the system.
“You have to strike a balance,” he said. “This bill goes in the direction of not having enough safeguards.”
Jerry Labriola Jr., chairman of the Republican Party, said while he commends the efforts to increase voter registration “same day voter registration is simply not the answer.”
“This is clearly an effort by the administration to keep themselves in power by making the voter rolls vulnerable and reducing ballot security,” Labriola said in a statement Monday. “There is no possible way that the registrars can send a confirmatory letter to verify a potential voter is a valid one on the same day they register.”
He also expressed concern the secretary of the state’s computer system doesn’t have the “proper security measures in place” to handle online voter registration.
But the state’s computerized voter registration system means registrars of voters “no longer need a week to prepare for Election Day,” Merrill said Monday. “And let me say we have strong election security in Connecticut. We have a statewide voter registry, multiple layers of identifying information, and a strong human network of registrars in every town and city in the state who cross-check the information.”
She argued the instances of fraud are rare and technology has improved to offer more security and make way for things such as online voter registration.
“We must of course preserve the integrity and security of our elections, but never at the expense of disenfranchising a voter,” Merrill said.
She said she doesn’t think Election Day registration will be a partisan issue and if it is it’s because “we’re more deeply divided now than we were then.”
Malloy, on the other hand, admitted that Republicans may not like Election Day registration, but he thinks no excuse absentee ballots won’t be a partisan issue.
In Connecticut every one out of three eligible voters is not even registered to vote, Merrill said. And voter turnout has been “anemic” in the state with barely 30 percent voting in last year’s municipal election and just 57 percent voting in 2010 statewide election.
That’s why she’s proposing no excuse absentee voting, a measure that requires a constitutional amendment.
“The idea that everybody must go to their polling place and cast a ballot is a wonderful expression of voter participation, but for many of our voters it simply does not work in the modern world,” Merrill said.
She said the constitutional amendment could be on the statewide ballot this year if both chambers of the legislature pass it with a three-fourths majority. If it passes with a simple majority it will need to be raised again by a new legislature and passed again by both chambers before it appears on the ballot in 2014.
She said after the freak October snow storm many residents relocated to shelters and were unable to apply for absentee ballots because they remained in the jurisdiction on Election Day.
She said it was “heartbreaking” for her when she had to tell local registrars they couldn’t offer absentee ballots to those people because it is not allowed under the current constitution.
“We need to take absentee ballots out of the constitution, and allow the system to be modernized and reflect how people live,” Malloy added in backing the measure.
He said the last time that issue was debated was back in the 1960s.
“It’s high-time to adjust our constitution to reflect the technologies available to safely allow more people to vote,” Malloy said.
He said back when the state proposed allowing people to register when they renewed their drivers license it was controversial, but today it’s a widely accepted practice.
Merrill is also looking at proposing an online voter registration system. It’s the first time such legislation would be proposed and it would allow voters to register themselves by going online to the state’s website.