Christine Stuart photo
Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, center of photo. (Christine Stuart photo)

Despite constitutional concerns, lawmakers advanced a bill Monday that establishes a pilot program for municipalities to test early voting in this year’s town elections.

Over the past few years, the legislature has jumped through considerable hoops in an effort to broaden its authority over the state’s voting system. That’s because the state constitution is unusually specific when it comes to the administration of statewide and federal elections.

For the second consecutive year, lawmakers are mulling a constitutional amendment that could give them more leeway to enact policies concerning no-excuse absentee ballots and early voting.

The bill that the Planning and Development Committee passed on a 12-6 vote Monday would allow an early voting test run in a handful of municipalities during their town elections scheduled for November of this year.

Proponents of the bill argue it does not run afoul of the state constitution, which has little to say with regard to town elections.

But opponents point to an informal opinion issued by then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal in 2009. The Government Administration and Elections Committee had asked that year for an opinion regarding whether lawmakers would need to amend the constitution to enact no-excuse absentee voting or early voting. Blumenthal responded in the affirmative.

“We conclude that an amendment to the state constitution would be required to permit no-excuse early voting in Connecticut,” he said.

In the memo, Blumenthal supports the conclusion and cites court rulings concerning statewide elections, but he did not specifically mention municipal elections.

Susan Kinsman, a spokeswoman for current Attorney General George Jepsen, said Blumenthal’s opinion did not address the issue of early voting in municipal elections. Kinsman said the Attorney General’s Office has not been asked for a formal opinion on town elections.

Blumenthal’s opinion likely helped set in motion the ongoing process of amending the state’s constitution, which requires that the General Assembly pass a 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 passed the House but still needs to clear the Senate before going on the ballot in 2014.

The legislation allowing the municipal pilot program was co-sponsored by three New Haven lawmakers and has now passed out of the Government Administration and Elections Committee and the Planning and Development Committee.

But there are lingering questions on whether it passes constitutional muster. On Monday, Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, opposed the bill, pointing to Blumenthal’s memo.

“Given that there probably isn’t a legal possibility to do this and that we really don’t have the state resources to begin this type of a pilot program, I think that we are better off delaying this type of proposal,” he said.

Sen. Steve Cassano, co-chairman of the committee, said the bill’s constitutionality “is an issue.”

Cassano said the Government Administration and Elections Committee asked them to move the bill forward in the legislative process, hoping to iron out the constitutional questions along the way.

“Obviously, if it isn’t constitutional it’s not going to go anywhere, but they’re hoping to get some resolution that we can adopt on the floor,” he said. “Clearly, everybody wants early voting, but we want to do it legally.”

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill also has entered testimony supporting the bill. But on Monday Merrill spokesman Av Harris said said that the support should not be construed as an opinion on the legislation’s constitutionality.

Harris said that Merrill, as the state’s top elections official, is a strong supporter of both early voting and the constitutional amendment before the legislature. But he said she leaves questions of constitutionality to the Attorney General’s Office and the courts.

“It’s a question that is sort of up in the air in [Merrill’s] point of view,” Harris said. “. . . The secretary would not presume to be able to determine the constitutionality of particular laws or proposed legislation.”

Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation, said he agreed that the constitution barred the state from enacting early voting for statewide elections, but did not see it as prohibiting towns from doing it.

“In the fact that they left that part of it silent, I think it provides great authority for municipalities to consider early voting,” he said.

At the end of the day, Lemar said he was looking to increase voter turnout during municipal voting season, an election cycle that doesn’t benefit from the increased attention focused on the process during federal and state election years.

“We have very low turnout at the municipal level, in New Haven, but also across the state. Voter turnout is much lower during municipal election season,” he said. “. . . We know that our current system does not allow for folks with two or three jobs, taking care of multiple kids, to make it to the polls on a random Tuesday in November. This is a smart way to improve turnout.”