HARTFORD, CT — After a decade as Connecticut’s top election official, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said Wednesday she will not seek a fourth term in office.
Merrill, a Democrat, made the announcement during a morning press conference outside the state Capitol building. Although she will not be running for office, she said she would continue to promote civic engagement.
“We must commit to educating students and adults alike about how our government works, the safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of our elections, and giving everyone the tools necessary to tell the difference between reliable news and attractive falsehoods,” Merrill said.
After 17 years as a state representative from Mansfield, Merrill was first elected to the constitutional office in 2010. During that time, she steadily advocated for easing access to the ballot and updating Connecticut’s election systems.
Those efforts became more politically charged in the aftermath of two contentious presidential election cycles. In her remarks Wednesday, Merrill recalled grappling with the threat of foriegn intervention in American election results in 2016. Meanwhile, she left unstated the baseless charges of voter fraud that have led many states to enact more restrictive election policies since last year.
Asked about stepping away from the election administration post during a period of upheaval, Merrill said the timing gave her pause but she looked forward to fresh ideas from a younger generation of policymakers.
“You know, I like to think these jobs are borrowed jobs. No one should be here forever. People come in with new ideas. I’ve been in for three terms,” Merrill said. “I feel very much like it’s also a time that a new generation needs to step up and preserve these things.”
Merrill’s decision not to seek reelection comes after a busy year for her office. The COVID-19 pandemic forced election administrators in Connecticut to quickly adapt an “inflexible” election system to new constraints.
“A deadly virus that passed through person-to-person contact put tremendous stress on an election system designed for one single day of voting in school cafeterias and town halls throughout our state,” she said.
A record number of residents — around 650,000 — cast absentee ballots last year as the state allowed virtually any voter to utilize a method normally constrained by the state constitution. This year, Merrill revived an effort to amend the constitution to remove those restrictions.
Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause of Connecticut, said Merrill fought for voter access even as the national dialogue on election policy has shifted in a more restrictive direction.
“Voting is a right and freedom. It’s not a privilege that some can bestow on others. I’m glad that she embraced that intention,” Quickmire said Wednesday. “That’s what needed to happen and we needed to have strong leaders in place to make that happen. I’m glad she was one of them.”
Merrill’s decision means voters will choose a new secretary of the state next year. She said she announced her plans early in an effort to give candidates looking to run for the office as much time as possible to get their campaigns up and running. She declined to speculate which Democrats may run to replace her.
“Maybe it will be somebody from a minority community? That would be wonderful. I, of course, would love to see another woman in my place but I think it’s a wide-open race at this point,” she said.
Ben Proto, newly-elected chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said the vacancy presents a good opportunity for his party to win the seat. Currently Republicans hold none of the state’s six constitutional offices. Proto said he expects voters are now more attuned to the office than in prior years and he wants to see updates to Connecticut’s voter rolls. He said Republicans already have one declared candidate, Brock Weber of New Britain.
“The secretary of the state’s office is a tremendously important office that kind of flies under the radar and over the last year and a half it’s been out front and center,” Proto said. “I think we have an outstanding opportunity to win the secretary of the state’s race.”