A bill approved by the state Senate Tuesday would make a number of changes to state election laws to ease the process of registering to vote as well as restoring the voting rights of people on parole.
The Senate sent the bill to the House for consideration on a 25 to 10 vote after three hours of debate. Republican Sens. Kevin Witkos of Canton and Tony Hwang of Fairfield joined Democrats in supporting the measure. Proponents hailed the legislation as modernizing Connecticut’s election system and encouraging voter participation.
“I think [the bill] reflects a common sense look at our election laws and trying to look at our existing laws in terms of how can we ease voting for as many people in our state as possible,” Sen. Mae Flexer, co-chair of the Government Administration and Election Committee, said.
In addition to restoring voting rights to parolees, the legislation attempts to expedite voter registration. The bill requires other state agencies to join the Department of Motor Vehicles in automatically sending voter registration applications for qualified residents to local registrars.
The bill would also allow e-signatures for election forms and applications, negating the need for voters to print out forms and mail them. It would allow voters to take up to two hours of unpaid time off from work to cast ballots, and it permits voters with disabilities or reading challenges to have assistance at the polls. Other provisions include making permanent the ballot dropboxes installed last year to accommodate increased use of absentee ballots during the pandemic.
Although all but two Republicans ultimately voted against the bill, Tuesday’s debate was marked by talk of compromise.
Lawmakers adopted an amendment before the debate containing a number of ideas from Republican members and removing some controversial elements that were in the bill when it was passed out of committee. For instance, a prior version included provisions requiring employers to offer paid time off for voting and prohibiting someone from possessing a firearm within 200 feet of a polling place.
The GAE committee’s ranking Republican senator, Rob Sampson of Wolcott, praised Flexer for her willingness to compromise before proposing nine additional amendments and eventually voting against the bill.
“This was a red-alert bill to me last week. I don’t even know if it’s a yellow-alert bill at this point,” Sampson said. “I probably will not support the underlying bill, assuming the many amendments I will offer tonight are not passed, but I do want to say that I am sincerely appreciative of my colleague.”
Among the elements of the bill Republicans opposed and attempted to change was the provision allowing people on parole to vote in elections.
“They’re still serving their sentence while they’re on special parole,” Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said. “To me, that is something you should have to complete before you become eligible to get your electoral privileges back. … To me, the bright-line solution is when someone has actually completed their obligation and completed their debt to society.”
Proponents argued the change simply brings parolees in line with people who are on probation, who are already permitted to vote under Connecticut law.
“I do agree with one point: there needs to be a bright line. And right now in Connecticut, we do not have a bright line,” Flexer said. “Right now that line is very fuzzy in Connecticut because people who are on probation can have their electoral rights restored and people who are on parole cannot.”