Secretary of the State Denise Merrill testified at public hearing Friday in support of proposals to modernize the state’s voting system including a constitutional amendment to clear the way for no-excuse absentee voting.
Connecticut is currently one of a few states whose constitution includes language governing when a resident may vote by absentee ballot. In order to qualify for an absentee ballot one must be sick, physically disabled, serving in the military, out of town on election day, working as a poll worker in another town, or be forbidden for religious reasons from secular activity on election day.
Merrill testified at a Government Administration and Elections public hearing on the amendment and a handful of other proposals to encourage voter turnout. She gave the committee some examples of people who currently cannot use an absentee ballot.
“A spouse who is a caregiver to their husband or wife who does not to leave their ailing spouse’s bedside is not even allowed to vote by absentee ballot. This is wrong and it needs to change,” she said.
She admitted that getting a no-excuse absentee amendment in Connecticut will be a lengthy three step process. 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 will then have to be put on the ballot for a vote by the public. If the public approves the change by a simple majority, the legislature will then be free to change the statute regarding no-excuse absentee voting.
The idea was met with resistance from some Republicans on the committee.
Sen. Michael McLachlan, R- Fairfield, said he had concerns about changing the constitution before Merrill’s office had conducted a planned study on absentee ballots.
“I’m uncomfortable with us opening up the gates and not having a clear direction where we’re going,” he said.
Merrill stressed that even if the General Assembly passed the measure with the three-fourths majority necessary to change the constitution, the amendment would still have to be approved by voters before the legislature could take steps change the statute. The process would take two years, she said.
“I definitely think we need to address some of these restrictions immediately. As soon as possible,” she said.
Rep. David Labriola, R- Oxford, said the amendment would make it much easier for the Democrat-controlled legislature to make changes to the absentee ballot statutes.
“The rules could change quite quickly on a simple majority once this change happens,” Labriola said.
Merrill said the language does not belong in the constitution, which she said is supposed to be “sort of policy guide.” But McLachlan questioned how it ended up there in the first place. Clearly past legislatures felt strongly about the issue, he said.
Merrill said her staff has been researching the issue and believe the language was put into the constitution at some time around World War I to ensure deployed soldiers had some mechanism to vote in elections. It was actually a liberalization of the existing constitution, she said.
Labriola also had voter fraud concerns over a different proposal which would allow voters to register to vote on Election Day.
If same day voter registration were allowed, local officials may be forced to deal with scenarios where a van full of people show up and ask to register to vote, he said. In that case the officials would be tasked with verifying those individuals hadn’t already voted in another town, he said.
“I envision this chaos and having local officials throw up their hands and say, ‘just go vote,’” he said.
Kashina Walsh-Weaver of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities expressed similar concerns and urged lawmakers to consider the added responsibilities and administrative costs it would place on towns. Registrars already have a very busy day on election day, she said.
Merrill acknowledged the possibility that poll workers would be overwhelmed by an influx of voters, but she didn’t believe that was such a bad problem to have. She said because the University of Connecticut is located in her town hometown of Storrs, it would be one of the most likely places where that type of scenario would play out.
But even if that happens, it’s a good thing when more people exercise their right to vote, she said.
“We should be able to manage this and I think it’s our job to do that,” she said.
Besides, Merrill said there was no evidence that the type of voter fraud Labriola was concerned about actually takes place.
“It just doesn’t happen. The biggest problem we have is people aren’t voting,” she said.
At a press conference earlier in the day Committee Co-Chairwoman Sen. Gayle Slossberg agreed the proposal would increase voter turnout by catering to people who may not have started paying attention until late in the election.
“Nowadays there are a lot of people who don’t pay attention to their elections until it’s very close to the election and then they say, ‘I’m a citizen, I pay taxes, I want to vote.’” She said. “…Why should we be disenfranchising them? They should have that right.”
Merrill and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy unveiled the package of voting proposals, which includes online voter registration, at a press conference in January.