When Connecticut voters walk into their polling places on Nov. 4, they’ll experience an uncommon occurrence: they’ll be voting for more than just candidates for office. For reasons that will be explored later in this column, these sorts of ballot questions are unusual in our state. And this one will be notable for its tautological quality: voters will be voting about . . . voting.
Question 1, perhaps inaptly named since it will be the only one on the ballot, will ask voters to amend the state constitution to allow the General Assembly “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?”
Currently, voters must have a darned good excuse to obtain an absentee ballot. They must be sick on election day, traveling out of range of their hometown, serving in the military or have religious obligations. The amendment would also allow the General Assembly to institute so-called early voting, whereby ballots can be filed days or even weeks before an election.
On the one hand, such a change seems unnecessary. If you’re in town, polls in Connecticut are open for 14 hours. With that kind of window, it’s hard to believe a voter couldn’t swing by the polling place before or after work. As for the excuses, if you tell a registrar of voters or a town clerk that you’ll be out of town on election day, do they ask to see your plane ticket or a certificate of enrollment from your college? I don’t think so. But removing restrictions on absentee balloting would at least take away the need to lie. Call me old fashioned, but I’m a firm believer that less lying is always a good thing.
The biggest reservation I have about voting yes on Question 1 is that the amendment would turn the reformation of election laws over to the very same politicians who will benefit from it. For an example, one need look no further than how lawmakers carve up legislative districts to benefit the incumbents in their own parties. Look, for example, at Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District. The eastern half looks like a donut with a bite taken out of it. We can only imagine what craven lawmakers were thinking when they dreamed up that abomination.
And there is the possibility of mischief in the early voting process, as evidenced by a Republican state representative repeatedly trying to vote early for himself on a touch-screen machine in Schaumburg, Ill., only to have the votes actually register on the screen as Democratic. The Cook County Clerk’s office attributed the lawmaker’s experience to a “calibration error.”
But unfortunately, there’s probably no other way to enact voter reforms than through the legislature because Connecticut’s lack of access to ballot initiatives (more about that in a minute) makes citizen legislation even more problematic. And appointing a blue-ribbon commission to recommend changes to voting laws would be just another way for elected officials to duck responsibility for the finished product.
I’ve also reluctantly concluded that there is little at stake here in terms of principles. Arguments over increasing voter participation inevitably fall along party lines: While few of them will admit it, Democrats think the masses of the unregistered and unmotivated, if prodded to register and vote, would naturally gravitate toward the party of Franklin Roosevelt.
Republicans agree, which is precisely why they are often critical of such efforts. If the shoe were on the other foot, I’m convinced the parties’ positions on ballot access would be reversed. As for the mischief, you could use the possibility of foul play to oppose virtually any new program. That said, I will hold my nose and vote yes on Question 1.
A larger but related question is why we don’t see more ballot initiatives in Connecticut. State law does not provide for referendums and the like. Perhaps it should. Granted, we don’t want to run into a situation such as California’s, where there’s a referendum at every turn and voters continually approve expensive projects and then vote down the tax increases to pay for them.
In Massachusetts, where the newspaper I work for is located, the state has four voter initiatives on the ballot this fall. Some politicians like them because it takes the responsibility for the law away from legislatures, allowing politicians to wash their hands of the ill effects of the legislation and claim credit for letting the people decide. Other lawmakers dislike ballot initiatives for precisely the same reason: they alone want to make the laws the rest of us must live by.
Ballot initiatives can have a positive effect. Granted, we don’t want mob rule or the cognitive dissonance of California. And we won’t get that if the bar to entry is high enough.
So while we in Connecticut are voting on voting, let the General Assembly consider a 2016 ballot initiative allowing . . . ballot initiatives.