The Connecticut House of Representatives voted Wednesday to expand the circumstances under which voters can qualify for an absentee ballot, broadening eligibility to the extent allowed by restrictions in the state’s constitution.
Lawmakers approved the bill on a 126 – 16 vote with support from both parties.
Democrats in the legislature have begun the complicated process of amending the constitution to remove specific language governing absentee and early voting. However, the bill that passed Wednesday broadens eligibility as much as possible within that existing language.
Although voters must still attest to one of the handful of specific excuses in the constitution, supporters of the bill say the legislation provides them with some wiggle room.
Commuters may qualify if they spend most of Election Day out of town at work, rather than out of town for all hours polls are open. A caretaker may decide to vote by absentee ballot rather than risk exposing their vulnerable client to an infectious disease.
“We had an interesting story, an elderly couple at a public hearing came to us,” said Rep. Daniel Fox, a Stamford Democrat who is co-chair of the legislature’s election policy committee. Fox described the couple’s predicament: the husband was due to undergo heart surgery on Election Day. It was unclear if he’d be discharged before the polls closed.
“They were terrified,” Fox told reporters prior to Wednesday’s vote. “If they get an AB are they risking committing a felony?”
Proponents describe the bill as mirroring the language in the state constitution but the state Supreme Court put them on firmer legal footing in 2020, when it ruled in favor of easing restrictions so virtually any voter could cite fear of sickness to qualify for absentee ballots during the COVID pandemic.
During the debate, opponents argued the bill was too vague and amounted to no-excuse absentee voting without amending the constitution. The legislation allows voters to cite “sickness” as a reason to secure an absentee ballot but does not specify who must be sick.
“If it’s just the word ‘sickness,’ everybody in the state of Connecticut applies,” Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, said. “It’s, in my mind, a backdoor way to get into no-excuse absentee voting.”
Members of both parties on the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee spent hours last week trying to arrive at language that would appease the concerns of some Republicans. Fox described those conversations as “productive” but said no compromise was reached. Still, the bill found broad support in the House.
Some Republicans said they felt expanding the use of absentee voting invited opportunities for voter fraud. Critics pointed to a 2020 decision by the secretary of the state, whose office mailed applications for ballots to everyone on the voter rolls. Those applications could have enabled someone other than the registered voter to apply for a ballot, they said.
“Generally speaking, people who want to get an absentee ballot, broadly should be allowed to get one,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said Wednesday. “The fundamental issue is what we’ve seen with ballot harvesting. Those are the problems.”
During the floor debate, Mastrofrancesco proposed an amendment to limit the unsolicited mailing of applications for absentee ballots.
“We are always looking for checks and balances. Security measures to make sure that we preserve the integrity of our election process, especially when it comes to mail-in voting,” Mastrofrancesco said.
The change failed, largely along party lines. Fox argued the prohibition was unnecessary. The secretary of the state mailed the applications for public health reasons in 2020 and now had neither the funding nor intent to make another mass-mailing, Fox said.
Democrats contended that policies like signature verification, which another unsuccessful amendment sought to require, were unreliable and would create a burden for the towns and cities that must implement them. House Speaker Matt Ritter said voter fraud is rare, ineffective and met with harsh consequences.
“The prevalence of it is so small and the penalties so strict and the importance of voting far outweighs the limited circumstances in which you have some bad actors,” Ritter said. “You have to weigh the totality test and I think for everyone in our caucus, it weighs in enfranchising voters and we’ll punish the bad actors when we find them.”
The bill will head to the state Senate where lawmakers are expected to take up the issue during session next week.