ctnewsjunkie file photo
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

An 88-year-old Trumbull woman and several organizations that protect voting rights for the poor and minorities are suing Secretary of the State Denise Merrill in federal court seeking greater access to absentee ballots for November’s election during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gloria Francesconi of Trumbull is a member of the League of Women Voters, Connecticut Chapter, who has voted in nearly every election since she was 21, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.

But as an 88-year-old state resident, Francesconi is at higher risk to suffer complications and death from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, making it potentially dangerous for her to show up at the polls during the November election.

She’s not alone, according to the CT ACLU. Throughout the state, people of color and the poor have been hardest hit with complications and deaths caused by COVID-19

The CT ACLU and the national ACLU filed the lawsuit Thursday on behalf of Francesconi, the LWVCC and the Connecticut State Conference of NAACP Branches to get Merrill to expand access to absentee ballots for the November Presidential election.

“Most states allow any eligible voter to cast an absentee ballot, but Connecticut requires that voters provide an excuse to do so,” the CT ACLU said in a press release. “While Sec. of State Denise Merrill expanded the absentee ballot access for the August primary under executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont, she has failed to do so for the November general election, meaning the vast majority of voters would be forced to vote in-person or avoid voting at all for fear of becoming ill.”

Merrill doesn’t necessarily disagree with the plaintiffs.

“No Connecticut voter should be forced to choose between protecting their health and casting their ballot. As I have said for months, the legislature should come into special session immediately to allow Connecticut voters to cast their votes by absentee ballot in November,” Merrill said.

All voters will be mailed absentee ballot applications for the Aug. 11 primary.

“All legal arguments aside, I am focused on ensuring that all Connecticut voters are able to vote safely by the method of their choice,” Merrill said.

As of Wednesday, the state has had 46,572 people test positive for COVID-19 with 4,324 deaths. Across the country, Blacks and Hispanic people have died of COVID-19 at higher percentages than whites, according to studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Harvard University.

“The Black community has been hit the hardest in the state by COVID-19 by devastating our people’s health and finances, and now it seems we will be hit the hardest politically in the state of Connecticut if there are not protections put in place for voting rights in November,” said Scot X. Esdaile, president of the Connecticut NAACP State Conference. “We need to do everything possible to prevent a huge political catastrophe in November, and that means making sure people are able to vote in a safe manner.”

Merrill used her authority in May to clarify the “definition of illness” for absentee voting in the August primaries to include underlying medical conditions that put some individuals at higher risk for severe COVID-19 infection as “pre-existing illnesses.”

The move allowed those who ordinarily wouldn’t have been able to vote by absentee ballot to do so if they had “pre-existing illnesses,” or if they had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, if they were caring for someone with an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 or if they felt they were ill because of the possibility of contact with the virus.

The expanded access to absentee ballots only extended to the August primaries and not the general election in November, the lawsuit said.

As it stands now, those who want an absentee ballot for the November election will have to complete an application that lists the “excuse” as to why they need the ballot, court papers said. The lack of expanded access to absentee ballots for the November general election will impact state voters of color the hardest, who are already at greatest risk for complications from the virus, representatives of the CT ACLU said.

“Connecticut has been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in Black and Latinx communities, and the hard truth remains that no one knows when this public health crisis will end,” said Attorney Dan Barrett, Legal Director for the CT ACLU. “A crowded polling place can threaten people’s right to vote during normal times, and it could threaten their right to vote and their health during a pandemic.”