Candice Battiste, campaign strategist for the Legal Defense Fund, calls for passage of the Connecticut Voting Rights Act Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Lawmakers and civil rights advocates called Tuesday for the passage of a Connecticut Voting Rights Act designed to remove barriers to voting in Black and brown communities or for those who do not speak English as a first language. 

The bill, which will be heard in the Government Administration and Elections Committee, aims to codify in Connecticut elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, which has been weakened by recent Supreme Court rulings. 

During the press conference, Jess Zaccagnino, policy counsel for the ACLU of Connecticut, said communities of color now have less voting access protections than they did in 1965 and Connecticut was no exception.

“We know that Connecticut lags behind when it comes to voting rights. Connecticut has a long and shameful history of disenfranchising voters of color, especially Black and Puerto Rican voters,” Zaccagnino said. 

The bill has been raised during prior sessions but so far failed to gain passage. In the past, the legislation would have prevented communities from adopting additional prerequisites for voting if they impaired the franchise of members of a protected class. 

“From our perspective the intent of this provision is to prevent municipalities and locations that have had a history of discrimination in the area of voting from doing so in the future and giving them that extra level of scrutiny before they change practices,” said Rep. Matt Blumenthal, a Stamford Democrat who co chairs the Government Administration and Elections Committee.

The bill would also have authorized the secretary of the state to pursue civil actions for violations of the law and would establish a state database to evaluate.

Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Another provision of the bill would require municipalities to provide language assistance for those who need it in communities where non-English speakers comprise a certain threshold of the voting-aged residents.

During the press conference, Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., D-Waterbury, said that language barrier can deter many residents who wish to vote but do not speak English. 

“People that don’t speak English as a first language but want to exercise their right to vote have every right to go there and get it explained to them in their native tongue if it happens to be Spanish,” Reyes said. “I will be very frank, some polling places are accommodating and others are not.” 

Last year, the bill cleared the GAE Committee but expired on the Senate calendar due to inaction. 

Sen. Matt Lesser, a Middletown Democrat who has proposed the bill more than once, said the legislation’s failure likely came down to a fiscal issue. 

Last year’s bill contained an estimated up-front cost to the Secretary of the State’s Office of more than $3.5 million. Those costs would be related to technological upgrades necessary to maintain a new database. The bill was also expected result in “significant” costs to various municipalities, according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis. 

This year, Senate President Martin Looney said he expects his chamber to take action on voting rights as well approving an early voting policy.

“Certainly, protecting access to voting is going to be part of our agenda,” Looney said. 

Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas said it was important for Connecticut to put voter protection laws on the books.

“As we’ve seen recently, not all settled law is settled. Precedent doesn’t always endure,” Thomas said.