Secretary of the State Denise Merrill (CTNewsJunkie file photo)

Last year, to avoid exposing voters to the coronavirus, Connecticut temporarily dropped its constitutional restrictions on which voters could cast absentee ballots. On Monday lawmakers weighed testimony on making the change permanent. 

More than 100 people signed up to weigh in on two resolutions to amend the state constitution during a Government Administration and Elections Committee public hearing. Both resolutions would put questions before Connecticut voters asking if the legislature should have greater flexibility to change state election laws. Specifically, legislators want the ability to pass laws on absentee voting or early voting without amending the constitution every time. 

Neither provision is a new debate. Connecticut’s constitution contains specific language on both subjects and lawmakers have tried for years to amend it to make changing voting laws easier. Proponents succeeded in getting the absentee ballot question before voters in 2014, but residents rejected it at the polls.

During the public hearing Monday, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said she suspected voters felt differently now, after a record 35% of voters cast absentee ballots during last year’s election. The state took emergency action in 2020 to allow voters to cast ballots without risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus from other voters. About 650,000 people took the opportunity.

“Times have changed,” Merrill said. “I think the 2020 election revealed that people could vote by absentee ballot safely and securely and I think they enjoyed it. They saw that the rest of the country was already doing it and I think it made a difference in the way people thought about it when they saw it in action.”

Others drew different conclusions from the 2020 election. Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Southington, suggested that Merrill believed Connecticut elections were perfect. Sampson said he did not share that belief. Many people are concerned, he said. 

“Seems like almost every day after Election Day, there is a report of something. We’ve had mass swearing-in ceremonies, happening after the fact, we’ve had found bags of ballots. Lots of things,” he said. 

Proponents of easing access to absentee ballots and early voting argue that voter fraud is rare, something akin to being struck by lightning. 

Responding to Sampson, Merrill tried to work out how someone might commit voter fraud using an absentee ballot. A potential fraudster would have to forge an application and hope the real voter hadn’t filled out their own application. They’d have to intercept the real voter’s ballot at the real voter’s address, then forge their name on the ballot. Then the fraudster would have to hope the real voter didn’t show up to vote, she said. 

“I think there would be few people willing to take all that risk to sign one false absentee ballot. There are a lot of ways we check on these things,” Merrill said. 

John Erlingheuser, advocacy director for Connecticut AARP, said much of the fraud related to absentee ballots seems to involve people trying to use them when they are not eligible rather than someone trying to cast a vote in another person’s name. For example, an older voter residing at a senior center located near a polling place may choose to cast an absentee ballot rather than walk to the polling center, he said. Under current law, that may be illegal if the voter did not qualify for one of the excuses in the state constitution. 

“Our folks are thrilled with these changes and want to continue them,” Erlingheuser said. 

The legislature would need to approve the absentee ballot resolution with the support of 75% of lawmakers in order to put the question before voters next year. If they pass it by simple majority, they would need to approve the resolution again in a different session and it would come before voters by 2024 at the earliest. The early voting resolution has already been approved once by simple majority and will be on the ballot next year if the legislature approves it again.

Some urged lawmakers to reject the resolutions. Dominic Rapini, of Fight Voter Fraud, stressed that the impact of voter fraud could be significant.

“Researching voting fraud is really hard. You have to have a clue that somebody was not the right person who signed a ballot,” he said.