An absentee ballot envelope for West Hartford.
An absentee ballot envelope for West Hartford. Credit: File / CTNewsJunkie

Voters can decide for themselves which circumstances involving sickness or out-of-town obligations might prevent them from voting in person, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said in a Friday interpretation of a new law meant to expand access to absentee ballots.

Merrill, the state’s chief election official, announced her reading of a recent law which eliminated the requirement that a voter be personally ill or out of town for all voting hours in order to qualify for an absentee ballot. Instead, the law and a 2020 Supreme Court decision allow voters to make their own judgments about whether absence, disability, illness or the risk of illness warranted voting by mail. 

“A voter’s individual determination that he or she is unable to appear at their polling location due to absence from town, sickness or disability, should be accorded deference with the presumption in favor of the right to vote and to avoid undue chill on the ability to vote by absentee ballot,” Merrill said in the interpretation released Friday.

The state legislature adopted the changes in March in an effort to ease statutory restrictions to vote by absentee ballot. Due to provisions in the state constitution, a voter must qualify for one of a handful of excuses why they would be unable to vote in person. 

However, many Democrats in the legislature argued that state law was more restrictive than the constitution and adopted a bill which significantly loosened the requirements. 

During debates on the legislation, Sen. Rob Sampson, the ranking Republican senator on the Government Elections and Administrations Committee, argued the bill replaced clear requirements with vague terms like “sickness” and essentially amounted to no-excuse absentee voting. 

On Friday, Sampson did not object to Merrill’s interpretation of the new law, saying he favored letting voters make their own decisions whether they needed to vote by mail. However, he worried the rules broadening the pool of voters eligible for absentee ballots would enable parties, candidates and others to send ballot applications to targeted swaths of voters who are now all potentially eligible.  

“I wouldn’t mail ballot applications to everyone in my district, but if they’re all eligible, now I can send them to the people I think are going to vote for me,” Sampson said. “They’re going to go ahead and send them out to the people they think are going to vote for their candidate, which, to me, disenfranchises everyone else.”

Mailing ballot applications to voters is legal in Connecticut, however Sampson and other Republicans objected when Merrill’s office approved a plan to mail applications to all registered voters at the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020. 

The state Supreme Court handed proponents of easing restrictions on absentee voting in Connecticut some latitude in 2020, when it concluded the state’s constitutional references to sickness could be extended to allow anyone worried about COVID-19 to vote by mail. 

Still, proponents of removing the language from the constitution altogether are pursuing an amendment which could potentially put the question before voters in 2024. 

In the meantime, Merrill said the recent changes would allow voters more flexibility. 

“No Connecticut voter should ever have to choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote,” Merrill said in a press release. “These changes are consistent with Connecticut’s Constitution and will allow more people to be eligible to cast an absentee ballot when they feel they are unable to vote in person in their polling place.”