Balloting in 2020 shapes debate over CT voting laws

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Democrats have some strategic decisions to make as they advance Constitutional amendments for early voting and expanded mail-in balloting measures, the top goals this year for the majority on the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee.

They will also consider legislation to allow ex-convicts on parole to vote. Another bill would remove prison populations from being counted as residents in state House and Senate districts, finally including inmates as residents of their hometowns, in a bill that could shift district boundaries where prisons are located.

Republicans have proposed several bills reflecting the party’s national goals, which the election watchdog Common Cause says are attempts to make it more difficult for voters to cast ballots.

The GOP proposals include ending the state’s Election Day registration law; and requiring photo ID for all voters; limiting the counting of absentee ballots to Election Day only.

Separately, Republicans have proposed allowing the apportionment of the state’s seven electoral votes around the five congressional districts, ending Connecticut’s winner-take-all law and withdrawing the state from the growing National Popular Vote compact effort to eventually sidestep the Electoral College.

With Democratic majorities of 97-54 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate, those Republican bills are likely to die from legislative neglect.

“Access to voting is something we’re going to pay attention to,” said state Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the GAE Committee, which was presented with about 180 bills that leaders of the panel are culling through to see what gets a public hearing and what gets thrown out in this pandemic-hindered legislative session.

Which path to take

Obstacles to early voting and mail-in balloting are in the state Constitution, so voters would have to approve amendment to end them. Democrats could advance a Constitutional amendment on early voting, but probably not an expanded mail-in question, onto the 2022 statewide ballot. To land on the ballot to amend the state Constitution, a question must either receive 75 percent approval from both chambers, or a simple 50 percent majority from two separate legislatures.

The early voting measure was approved previously, so it could get onto the 2022 ballot with a simple majority, which Democrats will easily muster. But they would need Republican support to reach the 75 percent ended for the expanded mail-in ballot measure — basically, a plan to allow absentee voting for any reason, as Connecticut did under emergency conditions in 2020.

If they can’t win the 75 percent for absentee voting, they could start the process over again for a unified Constitutional question that would likely go on the ballot in 2024. Or they could run the two measures separately with a goal of having Constitutional questions on voting in both 2022 and 2024.

“No issue generates more calls to my office than early voting,” said Secretary of the State Denise Merrill. “In today’s busy, modern world, voters want the flexibility of being able to vote early in person. Connecticut is far behind the rest of the country in allowing this convenient, secure method of voting.”

“After the success of temporarily expanding access to absentee ballots to every voter in the 2020 election, Connecticut voters are saying loud and clear that they want that option in every election going forward,” Merrill said in a recent statement. “No voter should ever have to choose between their health and their right to vote. Allowing voters the option to vote by absentee ballot without needing an excuse will ensure that no Connecticut voter is put in that position again.”

The 2020 experience

Fox, the committee co-chair, stressed that millions of dollars of federal money made it easier for state and local election officials in 2020, but that kind of money might not be available in the future. “The other side of the aisle, they have real concerns, and that’s why we want to work with them,” he said.

“There is merit for discussion on restructuring our law,” said House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford. “The constitution limits us more than other states. The issue has been divisive the last couple of years, so these debates are warranted. They could gain Republican support if proper safeguards are in place.”

Candelora and other Republicans were critical of Merrill’s mailing of absentee ballot applications to every registered Democrat and Republican for the party presidential. In a summer special session, state lawmakers approved a similar measure for voters to cast absentee ballots in November. The measure passed the Senate 35-1, with Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, voting against it. The House approved it 144-2.

In practice, Candelora and other Republicans were concerned that many inactive voters received ballot applications and other applications arrived at residences where voters had not lived for years. The applications had to then be filled-out, signed and sent to election officials, who in turn sent back blank absentee ballots for completion and mailing to local voting officials or depositing in secure sidewalk collection boxes, often next to town and city halls throughout the state.

“It was very dicey at the time and you could argue that it was not constitutional, but the legislature needed to do something in the pandemic,” Candelora said of the votes in special session last year.

“The bill we approved this past summer for the expansion of absentee balloting were effectively, without fraud,” Fox said, recalling that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle worked collaboratively and the result was nearly unanimous support. “We want to make sure that ball keeps rolling.”

Criminal justice and voting

Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, said that the changes to the Constitution are the major bills, but election advocates also want automatic voter registration. Parolee voting is also an important goal for this session. “We have been introducing that legislation for years,” Quickmire said.

And while some lawmakers feel they represent the inmates in their districts, Quickmire said they clearly do not. “This is a question of fairness,” she said. “They are from their hometown communities and the current prison gerrymandering system dilutes the votes of Black people and enhances the votes of white people. This is a racist practice.”

Quickmire called many of the Republican proposals part of a nationwide effort to suppress voter access and participation, which is going on in a number of states in the wake of the presidential election, including Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia, as recently detailed in a report by the Brennan Center for Justice.

“Making it possible for people on parole to vote is a critical bill,” she said. “We can talk all we want about equity, but if we don’t do something about it, we’re ignoring a whole group of people who have served their prison time except for parole. They should be able to vote. It’s done around the country and we need to do it here.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT