Connecticut citizens will have a chance to vote for something other than a politician in the upcoming November election: a constitutional amendment.
The amendment concerns restrictions to absentee voting in the state constitution. Currently, Connecticut only allows for absentee voting in cases where the voter is sick on Election Day, outside of the district, serving in the military, or has religious obligations.
The amendment, the text of which can be found here, would strike this specification from the state constitution and add a provision saying people are allowed to vote without appearing at a polling place on Election Day.
If it passes, the amendment would give the General Assembly the power to pass laws altering election laws in Connecticut. It would give them the power to pass legislation that would allow “no excuse” absentee voting or open polling places on the Saturday before elections.
“There’s no reason not to vote early,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause, a group that has been advocating for the passage of the ballot question. “It gives more people the opportunity to vote.”
Quickmire said being able to vote early or by absentee ballot would be benefit anyone who might have trouble making it to the polling place on Election Day, particularly commuters, elderly residents, and those who can’t leave work or school.
However, absentee voting isn’t a clear cut issue. Many state Republicans think removing the language from the state constitution could give too much power to the legislature to decide election laws.
“I’m uncomfortable with us opening up the gates and not having a clear direction where we’re going,” Sen. Michael McLachlan, the ranking Republican member of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said in 2012.
Rep. David Labriola, R- Oxford, pointed out that “the rules could change quite quickly on a simple majority once this change happens.”
Republicans also raised concerns about fraud and abuse in the event that no excuse absentee voting is allowed.
Expanding absentee voting is an issue with deep partisan undertones. Republicans accuse Democrats of using absentee voting as a way to expand their voter base, while Democrats say Republicans are opposed to it because it would hurt them in elections.
Both sides vehemently deny that political calculations factor in to their stances on the ballot question.
“This is a common sense measure that is going to make voting better in this state,” Quickmire said.
But the measure divided the General Assembly almost completely along party lines. Only two Republican lawmakers, one in the House and one in the Senate, voted for the amendment it in 2013.
Rep. Livvy Floren of Greenwich, a former member of the Government Administration and Elections Committee who worked on the bill, was one of the two Republicans to vote for the proposal.
“I’m in favor of anything that increases voter participation,” she said. Floren said she received no pressure from her party to vote the other way.
Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, was the other Republican to vote in favor of the bill.
Despite the strong Republican opposition, both Floren and Quickmire said they are confident that the public will approve the ballot question.
“The only challenge is to make sure people know it’s on the ballot,” Quickmire said. “We’re trying to make sure the word gets out.”
Common Cause has been reaching out to various community organizations and trying to spread knowledge of the ballot question through word of mouth, but they don’t have the funds for paid advertising at this point.
Quickmire expressed concern that the wording of the question could be problematic for voters.
“I wish it could have been changed to make it easier to understand,” she said. “If you see something that’s confusing…your instinct is to vote no.”
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said she thought the language of the question was “sufficiently clear” but was also concerned about how much voters knew about the ballot question going to the polls.
“It’s just a question of whether or not people know it’s on the ballot,” she said.
There will be a 200-word explanation of the question posted on wall of every polling place on Election Day along with the text of the constitution and the exact wording of the changes. Still, Quickmire said she’s worried not everyone would read or even see the explanation.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is running for re-election, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley have both weighed in on the proposed amendment.
“Voting is a great responsibility and this amendment assures the voting rights of every Connecticut resident whether or not they can get to the polls on Election Day,” Malloy said in a press release last year when the resolution passed.
Foley told the Hartford Courant in August that he supports no excuse absentee voting, but could not support this particular initiative because he thought it would give too much power to the legislature.
University of Connecticut professor Ronald Schurin said that voter fraud is not a significant issue and that “the number of documented cases is very, very small.”
Schurin wasn’t so sure that no excuse absentee voting would necessarily give a large advantage to either party.
“I can see voters down in Fairfield County who commute and are economically conservative wanting to avail themselves of this, but I can also see it helping voters in other parts of the state,” he said.
Amending the constitution in Connecticut takes time. Changes have to be approved by both the voters and the legislature.
According to a report from the Office of Legislative Research, the last time constitutional voting provisions were amended in Connecticut was in 1964. They were first amended during the Civil War to temporarily allow soldiers to vote by absentee ballot and again for the same reason during World War I. The amendment allowing for sickness or travel was passed in 1932 and the religious exemption was added in 1964.