With less than a week remaining in the legislative session, the Senate devoted about four hours Thursday to passing a resolution that may, in 2024, let residents consider easing constitutional constraints on absentee voting.
The chamber voted 27 to 9 to take an incremental step toward amending the state constitution to remove restrictive language which requires a voter to claim one of several specific excuses in order to vote by absentee ballot. Republican Sens. Paul Formica of East Lyme, Tony Hwang of Fairfield, and Kevin Witkos of Canton, joined Democrats in supporting the resolution.
Sen. Mae Flexer, a Windham Democrat who is co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said that Connecticut was in the minority when it came to absentee ballot policies. Currently, 34 states allow voting by absentee ballot in some form without an excuse, she said.
“But I’m afraid that by the time this year is done and by the time the voters of Connecticut actually get to decide on this resolution that will be very different because the tone has shifted and it’s become a partisan fight,” Flexer said.
The Senate took up the resolution more than three weeks after a House vote dashed proponents’ hopes of putting a referendum question before voters next year. Republicans in the House largely voted against the measure and supporters fell short of the 75% threshold required for the question to appear on ballots in 2022.
As it stands now, both chambers of the legislature must pass the resolution again after the next election, meaning the earliest voters could weigh in on the issue would be during the 2024 election.
Throughout the debate, Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, proposed several amendments that would have added language to the resolution to include concepts such as signature verification and photo identification requirements in the state constitution. Another amendment would have prohibited election officials from sending applications for absentee ballots to voters unless they requested one.
Democrats rejected all the amendments despite Sampson’s claims that adoption could result in super-majority votes in both chambers before the legislative session concludes next week.
“I have a pit in my stomach after the last vote on the amendment,” Sampson said. “That makes three party-line votes in a row where I made legitimate attempts to work with my colleagues across the aisle to find a way to pass legislation we all advocate for in a bipartisan and common sense way.”
Supporters of the resolution argued that their goal was to make Connecticut’s constitution less restrictive on voting policies rather than enshrining new requirements. If the legislature did someday opt to add the policies Sampson advocated for, Flexer said those changes were better suited as laws, which are easier to adjust and refine, than constitutional provisions which require amendments to tweak.
Democrats also argued that new restrictions were not necessary because voter fraud is rare. Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said the chamber spent a lot of time arguing over something many times less common than being struck by lightning.
“If we are going to be making policies and making amendments based on the probability analysis, then maybe we should just live in this room because the probability of falling down while we are walking up, or being hit by another car is far more than some of the policies that we are looking at,” Anwar said.
Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, said her city had an unfortunate history of corruption, some linked to absentee ballot issues, where “a few bad actors” had for years coerced senior citizens into signing ballots. Despite not being perfect, Moore said the system worked because people who commit fraud are often punished.
“There are safeguards in the system,” Moore said. “There are safeguards in people that can stop the fraud if it happens, but I truly believe, as someone who has been through, watched it all — been beat up — that allowing people to vote, giving everyone the same access will make a difference.”
In a statement, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said the resolution, along with another effort to amend the constitution for early voting, represented one of the largest expansions of voter access in state history.
“Even though the process can be slow, too slow in this case, ultimately Connecticut voters will be able to cast their ballots by the method of their choosing – by absentee ballot without needing an excuse, in-person at their convenience before Election Day, or in a polling place on Election Day,” Merrill said.