On Monday, Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill held a press conference in her office near the House chamber in the Capitol to “unveil four distinct pieces of legislation that form the cornerstone to improve and reform Connecticut’s election system.” Afterwards she testified at length before the General Assembly’s Government Administration and Election Committee, in support of the proposed legislation and a proposal to amend the state constitution. Following her testimony, others also testified on the elections matters pending before the committee, chaired by Senator Gayle Slossberg(D-Milford, 14th District) and Representative Russ Morin(D-Wethersfield, 28th District).
In coming days we will examine the election and these election reform proposals. On November 2nd, Election Day last year a shortage of election ballots early in the day in the largest Connecticut city, Bridgeport, and the close race between Governor Dan Malloy and his Republican opponent, resulted in a vote count that was uncertain for a considerable length of time, and required court intervention that day resulting in polls remaining open later in Bridgeport than elsewhere in the state. Former Secretary of the State and current 2012 U.S. Senate candidate Susan Bysiewicsz earned her paycheck during her tenure in office, but perhaps never more so than in the days following the November 2nd election.
The bills under consideration would provide for up to date training for those involved in elections, requiring more communication between local Registrars of Voters and the Secretary of the State’s office, especially mandating that they report how many ballots they purchase for upcoming elections, and that they certify that they’ve taken into account factors such as tight races which might result in higher voter turnout. In the case of November’s election, President Barack Obama appeared in Bridgeport three days before the Tuesday election, which may have swelled turnout, for example. The proposed legislation would also require each town to have an emergency plan to address matters such as electrical failures and ballot shortages on days of elections.
Under the current Connecticut State Constitution, voters are required to vote in person, unless illness or disability prevents them from being at their polling place on the day of the election, or if religious considerations do not allow for secular activities on that day. Only in such situations are absentee ballots allowed constitutionally. There is even some question about the state constitutionality of a law recently passed allowing for remote voting by uniformed service personnel under the current constitutional provision. And while absentee voting is an option for the ill and disabled, Secretary Merrill pointed out during her testimony that caregivers of such persons, who may be needed at their sides all day on election days, do not have such absentee rights.
All data indicates that states with more expansive voting rights, allowing for mail-in voting, same day registration, and more ‘no-excuse’ absentee balloting, results in higher voter participation and more votes, period. Oregon has mail in voting only, so Election Day is not an event as it is elsewhere, and Secretary Merrill indicated her lack of enthusiasm for such a situation for our state. The proposed Constitutional Amendment would grant the General Assembly the legislative prerogative of establishing the criterion for early voting options such as ‘no-excuse’ absentee voting or regional early voting centers. The legislature would be able to modify election rules in this regard in the future. Any Constitutional Amendment passed by legislation would have to be voted upon by Connecticut voters on Election Day 2012 in November.
When asked about the ballot shortage in Bridgeport in general, and about the proposed legislative remedies, following the conference in her office Secretary Merrill, who became the states’ chief elections official upon her swearing in on January 5th, said “We would have the authority to say[to local Registrars and voting officials] ‘Have you considered this in the number of ballots that you have.’ We would know how many ballots they have–right now we have no idea. And the emergency plan… some of what happened was that there’s a lot going on, people are stretched to the nth degree and suddenly you have a crush of people in line, if there was a plan they could say ‘Oh its ok to photocopy ballots or we know where to get the photocopying machine.’ That would have really settled things down.”
In a more formal statement released after the conference in her office and her testimony before the Government Administration and Elections Committee, Secretary Merrill said: “What I am proposing here are targeted, common-sense changes that I believe will in the short term improve the way our elections are run and in the long term lead to making voting easier and more convenient.” Certainly work is getting done very quickly by the Secretary’s office[an extremely diverse and highly qualified public panel discussion held within 48 hours of her swearing-in, with the newly inaugurated Governor Malloy offering his support for her efforts early in that discussion].
When asked to comment on the proposed state Constitutional Amendment today, Senate Elections Chair Gayle Slossberg expressed the view that it is necessary to “take this archaic language out of the constitution.” And she indicated her feeling that the absentee balloting section of the state constitution as currently stands “really does discourage people from voting.” Senator Slossberg said that she believes that “Rules should not be established constitutionally,” in this case, but that the legislature should be able to do so legislatively.
Consideration of the amendment and the legislation will proceed, with a final legislative vote on the constitutional amendment likely by the end of April