For the second consecutive year, lawmakers in the House approved a resolution Wednesday asking voters for permission to change the constitution to give them broader authority over the state’s voting system.
Currently, Connecticut’s constitution includes specific language outlining aspects of the state voting process. The constitution includes a series of reasons why a voter may obtain an absentee ballot. It limits access to the ballots to people who will be out-of-state, are disabled, or are unable to go to the polls on Election Day because of their religion.
The state’s Democratic majority and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill have sought changes to the election process. But in order to amend the constitution, the General Assembly must pass the resolution two years in a row by a simple majority or once by a three-fifths majority to put it on the ballot for voters. Both chambers passed the bill last year. This year’s resolution still needs to clear the Senate before going on the ballot in 2014.
As with last year’s resolution, the legislation came down to a mostly party-line vote. It passed 90-49 with only Rep. Livvy Floren, a Republican from Greenwich, breaking ranks with her party to support it.
In a statement, Merrill lauded the House for acting on the measure and urged the Senate to take it up quickly.
“It is long past time for those of us in state government to allow Connecticut voters to cast their ballots in a way that works better with their busy, mobile lives,” she said.
While explaining the resolution, Rep. Ed Jutila, House chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said that it was just one step in a lengthy process. If voters approve the ballot question, it would give lawmakers an opportunity to consider election changes through the normal legislative process.
“It would give the General Assembly authority to pass laws that would permit things like no-excuse absentee ballots and perhaps other initiatives that could provide a means for our voters to vote without necessarily having to appear at the polling place on Election Day,” he said.
Rep. Tony Hwang, the committee’s ranking Republican, argued that the state constitution is difficult to change by design. He asked why Democrats were “pursuing so aggressively” the change to the constitution.
“Amendments are not supposed to be easy. In this day and age of drive-by, quick decision-making the constitution is what holds this state together,” he said.
Hwang noted that Connecticut residents have the opportunity every 20 years to vote on whether they think the state constitution needs alteration. In 2008, voters rejected an opportunity to hold a constitutional convention to discuss changes to the constitution.
Jutila said the convention is one of several mechanisms for amending the state constitution. The constitution was not intended as a tool to “micro-manage” all of the state’s business, he said. It was designed to lay out the government’s structure and some fundamental rights.
Jutila stressed that adoption of the resolution, on its own, would do nothing to change the document.
“What this does is puts reforming of our election laws in the hands of our lawmakers who are responsive to their constituents, the people in this room or the people who replace us a couple of years from now,” he said.
Republicans fear Democrats would use the change to institute early voting where voters would be able to go to the polls prior to the actual Election Day or allow them to vote by mail. Democrats believe it will increase voter participation.
Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, opposed the resolution over fears about how lawmakers may someday decide to change the state’s voting laws. He compared removing constitutional voting process restrictrictions to removing the Freedom of Speech or Religion from the U.S. Constitution. He said some things should not be subject to a simple majority vote.
“No one would say that it would be a good idea to trust the legislature, to trust the majority to do the right thing every time,” he said.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said he and many other Republicans supported the idea of letting people vote by absentee ballot without an excuse. He said the state constitution has allowed for absentee ballots for around 150 years.
But Cafero did not support changing the constitution to allow the General Assembly to pass laws changing other aspects of the voting process. He said the voters considering the ballot question in 2014 would have no way of knowing how future lawmakers may try to implement early voting mechanisms. He proposed an amendment that would have confined the constitutional amendment to apply only to permit no-excuse absentee voting.
“We have a responsibility to be clear to the public exactly what we want to do,” Cafero said.
Jutila opposed the amendment because he felt it should be within the legislature’s purview to approve an early voting system, even if it was not specifically outlined in the resolution lawmakers were debating.
“I believe it is time for Connecticut to have the opportunity, and I stress opportunity, to join 32 other states that have enacted some form of early voting,” he said.
The amendment failed on a 50-92 vote.