Hugh McQuaid photo
Sens. Anthony Musto and Michael McLachlan debate bill (Hugh McQuaid photo)

The Senate approved a resolution Wednesday evening to ask voters in 2014 to amend the state constitution to give the legislature more authority over Connecticut’s election policies.

The Senate’s 22-14 vote represents the final step in a lengthy process to put a constitutional change on the ballot for voters in next year’s election.

Connecticut’s constitution includes specific language outlining aspects of the state voting process, as well as a series of reasons why a voter may obtain an absentee ballot. It limits absentee 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 religious beliefs.

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 and the House already approved the resolution again this year.

“This is about allowing Connecticut voters to cast their ballots in a way that works better with their busy mobile lives, and in turn getting more voters to participate in democracy,” Merrill said after the Senate voted Wednesday. “Some 32 states have enacted some form of early voting or no-excuse absentee ballots and more than 30 million Americans cast their ballots early in the 2012 presidential election.”

Sen. Anthony Musto, a Trumbull Democrat who co-chairs the Government Administration and Election Committee, stressed that the resolution did not change the state’s voting laws on its own. Voters will still need to approve the amendment, and only then will lawmakers have the authority to enact new policy.

“It is not up to us here in this chamber tonight to change the constitution by ourselves,” Musto said. “It will go to a vote of our residents, and indeed that’s how it should be when we are changing our foundational document.”

Opponents of the resolution argued that the question voters will be asked to approve next year will not specify what changes the lawmakers are looking to enact if they are given the authority. Sen. Michael McLachlan, the ranking Republican on Government Administration and Election Committee, said it should be clearer what lawmakers intended to do in the future.

“We’re asking now to change the constitution for some unknown changes to election law,” he said. “The proponents are asking for a dramatic change to the constitution with an unknown next step.”

Although no-excuse absentee ballot voting is a concept that finds support on both sides of aisle, Republicans are concerned that Democrats will use the constitutional change to institute other less bipartisan policies, like voting prior to the actual Election Day or voting by mail. Democrats believe these policies will increase voter participation.

Hugh McQuaid photo
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney (Hugh McQuaid photo)

McLachlan and other opponents said the question that will appear before voters on the ballot should more clearly state what the constitutional change would mean.

Under the resolution, voters will see “Shall the Constitution of the State be amended to remove restrictions concerning absentee ballots and to permit a person to vote without appearing at a polling place on the day of an election?”

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said it should be clear to residents that they will be considering removing restrictions from the constitution and allowing lawmakers to make their own changes through the legislative process.

“There’s an obvious reason, and we all know it, why the question wasn’t posed that way. Because you don’t want to ask the people the real question because you know you won’t get a victory at the ballot. That’s pretty obvious,” he said.

In a statement, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he supports the resolution.

“While some states are working to suppress voter turnout, we are working to encourage greater turnout by increasing penalties on any effort to block voter access and moving our electoral system into the 21st Century,” Malloy said after the vote Wednesday. “I want to thank Secretary Merrill for her partnership in our effort to update Connecticut’s election rules, remove barriers to the ballot box, and increase voter participation.”