Sen. Rob Sampson and Sen. Mae Flexer speak outside the Senate Chamber. (Christine Stuart / photo)

Democrats in the Senate voted early Thursday morning to extend a standing policy allowing anyone concerned about the COVID-19 virus during elections to vote by absentee ballot through Nov. 3. 

The bill extends a policy adopted by the legislature last year that allowed the use of absentee ballots during the pandemic beyond a set of specific excuses outlined in the state constitution.

Lawmakers twice amended the bill during a several-hour debate. It had previously been written to prolong the policy only through July 1. After midnight Thursday, Democrats agreed to another, Republican-proposed amendment, which will require the Secretary of the State’s Office to develop a pilot program on signature verifications for absentee ballots during the 2022 election.

Despite the change, Republicans still opposed the underlying bill, which passed on a 12 to 24, party-line, vote.

Republicans objected to extending the availability of no-excuse absentee ballots beyond June, calling it an overreach in light of high vaccination rates among Connecticut residents and the state’s recently-low COVID-19 infection rates.

Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, praised the state’s vaccine rollout and Gov. Ned Lamont’s management of it during his opposition to the November extension. 

“I don’t see how this emergency goes past [July 1] and why we’re doing this amendment to go further on this,” Champagne said. “I’m speaking against this extension for that simple reason. We’re doing a great job.”

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Sen. Mae Flexer, a Windham Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said it was meant to provide some measure of certainty to towns and voters. 

“The one thing that we’ve learned over the last 12 to 15 months is that we don’t know anything for certain … This provides some clarity and tells everyone exactly what the rules are for the totality of 2021 as we continue to navigate COVID-19 and hope that this is the end of the pandemic but we cannot be certain of that just yet,” Flexer said.

Sen. Saud Anwar, a South Windsor and pulmonologist, said it was hard for the legislature, which will only be in session for about another month, to pin down a specific date when it can assume the threat of the public health crisis will have subsided.

“Are we in the midst of a pandemic? The answer is yes, we are. Are we doing better than most of the other parts of the country? Absolutely we are. Are we willing to say that mission is accomplished? No,” Anwar said. He pointed to variants and outbreaks in areas of the world where officials thought the pandemic was over. “I don’t have a future way of predicting if we are in the position to say that the mission is going to be accomplished by a specific date.”

Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, proposed a separate amendment that would have precluded the Secretary of the State’s Office or any voting administrator from mailing unsolicited ballot applications to residents. The amendment failed 12 to 24 along party lines.

Sampson argued the bill created “a system of no-excuse absentee voting whether it’s constitutional or not, which is what the secretary of the state used in the previous November election and the primary election to send out these ballot applications to every voter on the voter rolls.”

Flexer said she did not believe it would be an issue during this year’s elections.

“In conversations with the Secretary of the State’s Office, it’s my understanding that they have no such plans to mail absentee ballot applications as they did last year,” Flexer said. 

The legislature is debating another bill that would ask voters whether they want to change the constitution to allow for no-excuse absentee ballots. They would have to pass it by a super majority to get it on the ballot in 2022 or they can pass it with a simple majority and get it on the ballot in 2024.