Sen. Rob Sampson and Sen. Mae Flexer go over the bill outside the chamber. Credit: Mike Savino photo

The Senate supported a bill that would cement the federal Voting Rights Act into Connecticut law late Thursday night.

Named after civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, the law would aim to weed out local election rules and practices meant to limit voting access to minority voting groups.

It now awaits a vote in the House of Representatives after getting a 27-9 vote in the Senate.

If it passes, the legislation would bar municipalities from passing voting prerequisites, election processes or other rules that limit the ability to vote for race, color or language minority groups and other protected classes identified in the federal Voting Rights Act.

“The people who are depending on this bill don’t want your progress,” Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said. “They want to be treated fully human today.”

Voters who think a violation has occurred can either file a lawsuit against their town or request the Secretary of the State intervene and help find a solution. The secretary can also file a lawsuit.

The bill even spells out a process where certain municipalities could have to get approval from the Secretary of the State for major election changes.

Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, the ranking Republican on the Government and Administrations Committee, said the bill “at worst … implies that people vote by race.”

Sampson objected to the bill’s crackdown on “divergent voting patterns,” or situations in a district when the preferred candidate of minority groups protected under federal law are different from the candidate supported by the rest of the voters.

Sampson questioned how courts, the Secretary of the State or others enforcing the laws could determine what a group of voters preferred.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with civil rights and I don’t think it has anything to do with voting rights,” he said. “ I think it has everything to do with undermining a system that treats people as equals.”

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

But Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, co-chairwoman of the General Administration and Elections Committee, said the language comes directly from federal law, and federal courts have provided guidance on how to make a ruling.

She said judges or regulators would look at past elections to see if results suddenly changed. They would then need to decide if those results were because of changes in candidates or voters, or if new voting rules limited access for certain groups.

“What would happen would be an analysis of that particular municipality, of the voting patterns in that particular town or city, and the patterns of the protected class being concerned,” she said.

Flexer said an example would be when a municipality closes or moves polling places and voters can show the change hurt protected classes.

In cases where voters file a lawsuit, judges can impose a number of remedies should they rule against a municipality.

The law does require that remedies follow the state constitution, do not conflict with other court rulings and take into account a town’s ability to make changes in an “orderly and fiscally sound manner.” 

The bill lists some remedies, including ordering an alternative election method, requiring new or revised districts, increasing the size of a municipal legislative body, or adding or restoring people to voter rolls. If municipalities are cited for three more violations of this bill, state or federal election or civil rights laws or the 14th or 15th amendment, they would be designated as a covered jurisdiction. The same designation would apply to municipalities that are found in violation of rules around districting, redistricting or election methods. 

Covered jurisdictions have to get approval from the Secretary of the State before making districing changes, implementing a new voting method, removing people from voter rolls or implementing other specified overhauls. 

In situations where voters work out an agreement with their municipality, they would need approval from SOTS before the changes can go into place.

The SOTS would have 90 days to decide, and could do so “independent of the state’s election laws or any special act, charter, or home rule ordinance.” 

Similarly, if a judge’s order conflicts with a municipal charter, the Secretary of the State could approve a change that overrides the charter. 

Republicans said the bill gives too much authority to state courts and to the Secretary of the State. 

“I don’t doubt that the goals are laudable, but I am concerned about devolving our power or giving our power to the secretary of the state,” Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said. 

But Gaston said the bill would “benefit” all cities and towns. He also expressed concerns about municipalities copying efforts elsewhere in the country to limit voting access for minority voters. 

“If it can happen in Alabama and it can happen in Georgia and it can happen in Tennessee, sooner or later it can happen in Connecticut,” Gaston said.