The Government Administration and Elections Committee hosts a public hearing on March 6, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

A former Connecticut secretary of the state made a case during a Monday public hearing for a controversial proposal that would mandate that qualified voters cast ballots in elections.

Miles Rapoport, a Democrat who served as Connecticut’s top election official from 1995 to 1999, appeared before the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee to support the bill proposed by a group of Democrats earlier this year.

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At the moment, the proposal is a one-paragraph concept that requires qualified Connecticut voters to cast ballots during elections or provide a reason for not doing so. Rapoport told lawmakers on the panel that a similar system had worked in Australia for nearly a century and although no U.S. state had adopted the requirement, others were considering it. 

Rapoport likened compulsory voting to mandatory participation in jury duty, a civic requirement adopted to ensure that jury pools are reflective of the overall population when a person’s guilt or innocence is on the line. 

“I think the analogy to voting is very strong. We want — or we absolutely should want the decisions that are made about the laws under which we live and the people who are making those laws to be decided by the most fully reflective population,” Rapoport said. “We don’t have that now.”

Supporters of the proposal do not envision heavy punishments for those who fail to vote and do not provide a reason. Rapoport said Australian authorities accepted virtually any excuse voters provide for not casting ballots. 

“Very few people ever are asked to pay that but they consider it like a parking ticket, just sort of part of what you do,” he said. 

In an interview, the bill’s lead proponent, Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, said the punishment was necessary but beside the point of a proposal that envisions a cultural shift in how we approach elections.

“If you say, ‘We want universal voting’ and then there’s no punishment at all, you aren’t really saying anything,” Elliott said. 

“If you didn’t vote, the idea is we just simply ask you why. We send you a number of letters after the election saying, ‘Hey, just let us know why you didn’t vote.’ And you can respond with literally anything and then if after all of that you still don’t vote it would be a nominal fee. Five, 10, 15, 20 bucks,” Elliott said. 

However, the proposal has attracted a fair amount of controversy. More than 50 people submitted written testimony ahead of Monday’s hearing and opponents overwhelmingly outweighed supporters. 

“[I]t will compel voting by people who don’t care or don’t know about the issues or candidates, thus influencing the outcome,” Manuel Santos wrote. “Voting as an uninformed citizen is just as bad, perhaps worse, than not voting at all.”

“You cannot force a free citizen to enjoy the blessings of liberty and still call him a free citizen,” Susanna Bennett wrote. “To force a free human being to make a particular choice is to remove his ability to choose,” 

Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, made a similar argument during the hearing. The United States was a different place than Australia, he said.

“This is a nation of free citizens and how free can you actually be if someone’s forcing you to vote, is my opinion,” Sampson said. “Sure, I think people should participate in the electoral process. People should be informed and they should vote but I also certainly would respect anyone who doesn’t participate.”

Rapoport argued the concept does not necessarily require voters to choose a candidate. Ballots can be crafted to include a “none of the above” line or voters could simply return blank ballots, he said.

The proposal seems unlikely to get much traction this year in Connecticut and Rapoport conceded that the idea seemed to be a “radical” proposal, at least in the context of the United States, but said it had been tested by various other countries.

For his part, Elliott said he had minimal expectations for the proposal this year but believed residents would warm up to the idea over time. 

“I’ve already done what I want, which is just having a conversation and getting this idea into the water so we can start fleshing out what people’s concerns are,” Elliott said. “It gets a lot of negative pushback but I’ve found, once I start having conversations with people their worst fears would not be realized.”