Martin Luther King III praised Connecticut Monday for leading the country in expanding voting access in an era when other states have moved to curtail it.
The son of assassinated civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy held a press conference at the state Capitol in support of legislation currently before the General Assembly.
This year the legislature is considering a number of proposals that would make it easier for residents to register and vote. The proposals include Election Day registration and online voter registration. Another bill increases the penalties associated with intimidating voters.
Both the House and the Senate also have approved a bill that puts into motion a process to amend the state constitution to legalize no-excuse absentee voting.
King said it was surprising that some states have enacted laws limiting access to the polls nearly half a century after passage of the Voting Rights Act.
“I first want to applaud Connecticut for what it is on the brink of doing,” King said. “. . . Because I would have never guessed that after 47 years there would be efforts to restrict the right of people to vote in this great democracy.”
Malloy said the most onerous example of restrictions states have passed are laws requiring voters to have state-issued photo identification in order to vote. He described the laws as “racist” in their intent. In most cases, people have to provide a drivers license, something he said many senior citizens don’t possess.
“I think it’s the most onerous and the most purposeful, for the purposes of driving down participation, let’s be honest,” he said.
Proponents of voter ID legislation argue the laws help protect elections from fraudulent voters. However, Malloy said election fraud isn’t a rampant problem in this country.
“Every study about fraud in elections in the United States demonstrates that there is very little and, more often than not, no fraud — period,” he said. “In the name of preventing fraud, these laws would deny people who have voted for decades — decades — the ability to vote.”
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said King’s presence at the state Capitol helped provide national context for what she and Malloy were trying to accomplish when they proposed the legislation.
“It’s not that when the governor and I embarked on this idea that we thought that there would be so many other states moving in the other direction. That was not the intent,” she said. “. . . I think it is a statement about how we in Connecticut feel about how we want people to participate. We need every citizen to be voting.”
The governor urged House and Senate leadership to take up the bills as soon as possible. He said he’s prepared to lobby on behalf of the proposals if it becomes necessary during the remaining two-and-a-half weeks in the legislative session.
“If it at any time it appears one of them is in trouble, I can assure you, I’ll be happy to get involved,” he said.
So far, the legislature has already passed one of the proposals and committees have been acting on the others. The Appropriations Committee happened to be debating the Election Day registration bill during the press conference.
Unlike Malloy, some lawmakers on the committee had concerns about voter fraud in the state. Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, said setting up a system where it’s easy to fraudulently vote is just as wrong as disenfranchising people.
“The testimony I heard today tells me there’s plenty of opportunity for abuse in terms of registering and voting, unfortunately. I think we need far stricter controls to make certain that those who vote legitimately don’t have their own vote disenfranchised,” he said.
However, Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said there are good reasons why Connecticut does not require photo identification to vote.
“We have thousands, tens of thousands of longtime state residents who don’t have photo IDs. They take the bus, they don’t drive. They have credit cards that don’t have pictures on them. To require photo ID would be in essence, to disenfranchise, potentially, thousands of Connecticut residents,” he said.