A key committee voted Wednesday for same-day voter registration – a controversial issue that has prompted sharp debates about potential voter fraud for more than a decade.
The bill passed by 11 to 4 on a largely party-line vote as Republicans charged that registering and then voting soon after provides too many opportunities for last-minute fraud that might not be detected until after the election is over. One Republican joined with 10 Democrats to pass the measure. The measure now goes to the state Senate.
Sen. Gayle Slossberg, the committee co-chairwoman, spoke strongly in favor of the bill, saying it would help increase voter turnout at a time when turnout is low. She said there was no evidence of voter fraud in Connecticut, adding that a statewide voter registration database would prevent voters from casting ballots by driving to two different towns on Election Day.
“I do think that we take ballot integrity very seriously,” said Slossberg, a Milford Democrat. ”One of the great tools at our fingertips and at our registrars’ fingertips is our electronic database.”
Republicans sharply disagreed with Slossberg over fraud and offered amendments to prevent it.
Rep. John Hetherington, a New Canaan Republican, offered an unsuccessful amendment to ensure that proper photo identification is offered at the polling place at a time of rising identity theft. But Democrats countered that many senior citizens and members of minority groups do not have photo identification because they do not have a driver’s license.
“We’re looking for a valid federal government or state identification,” Hetherington told his colleagues. ”Whenever an invalid vote is cast, it disenfranchises someone who cast a valid vote. If one of us behaves dishonestly, it impacts someone else. … An election goes to the cornerstone of democracy. If we don’t have honest elections, we cannot boast that we have a legitimate democracy.”
Hetherington’s amendment failed, 9 to 5, as Republicans supported the measure and Democrats were opposed.
State Rep. David Labriola spoke strongly against the bill, saying that history shows that there has been documented voter fraud in Connecticut.
“I do think it opens the door to fraud,” said Labriola, an Oxford Republican. ”I do think there is plenty of evidence of voter fraud. … It would be chaos at the polls, and the local officials would not be able to handle it. … Elections would literally be stolen. … This is a purported solution to an absolutely non-existent issue.”
Some of the biggest fraud came in the 1986 Democratic delegate primary in Waterbury when Gov. William A. O’Neill was running against fellow Democrat Toby Moffett, said Labriola. In a primary that became marked by one of Connecticut’s biggest examples of absentee ballot fraud, 10 people were arrested on 94 criminal counts.
The controversial issue has a long history, including a veto in 2003 by then-Gov. John G. Rowland and a federal court ruling in 2005 in Connecticut that rejected same-day registration. In 2009, the state House of Representatives debated for nearly six hours before approving the bill by 81 to 65. Only one House Republican – Rep. Livvy Floren of Greenwich – voted in favor of the bill that year.
Floren has supported the bill since arriving at the legislature in January 2001, and she said Wednesday that she still supports both the Democratic-written bill and the photo identification that was pushed by Hetherington.
Despite various votes through the years by both chambers, the bill has never been signed into law.
Slossberg, a Milford Democrat, clashed sharply with the Republican view about photo identifications.
“There couldn’t be a more fundamental split,” Slossberg said. “In Connecticut, we do not have any evidence of voter fraud when registering in person. Not one case. … We have many ways that we combat voter fraud in our state. We have a statewide voter registration database. … Absolutely no evidence of voter fraud in this area. But we do know that between 10 and 25 percent of our population does not have a photo ID. More often not, there are certain member of minority classes that do not have photo IDs. … My father was a World War II veteran, but he no longer had a photo ID because he no longer drove. … I strongly oppose this [Republican amendment]. In this day and age, our goal should be getting as many people as we can to vote.”
When Hetherington, a Yale-educated attorney, asked where the 25 percent figure came from, Slossberg said that it came from a national study about photo IDs.
“Many people don’t get a driver’s license because they use public transportation,” Slossberg said. “Even if it’s one person that we’ve turned away who is supposed to vote” that is too many.
Hetherington responded, “The absence of fraud does not make an argument for facilitating fraud.”
The closest gubernatorial race in decades was in 2010 when Democrat Dannel P. Malloy of Stamford defeated Republican Tom Foley of Greenwich by 6,404 votes out of more than 1.1 million cast – a razor-thin margin of about one-half of 1 percent.
At the legislative level, seats have been won or lost by fewer than 10 votes – and recounts are not unusual for races in the state House of Representatives.
The issue being debated Wednesday was House Bill 5024, titled An Act Concerning Voting Rights.
Rep. Tony Hwang, a Fairfield Republican, said, “To me, EDR is far too quick. … Over 30 states have photo ID. Photo ID is an issue that has much more acceptance. I would ask us to slow down and respect the right and sanctity of the vote.”
But Slossberg noted that she remembered the veto dating all the way back to 2003 and said the issue had been studied enough.
The biggest court ruling in the case in recent years came in 2005 when a Connecticut federal judge rejected arguments by public interest groups who wanted the state to permit citizens to both register and vote on Election Day.
Only the legislature, not the courts, can force such a change in voter registration law, concluded U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz.
In a strongly worded, 60-page ruling, Kravitz wrote that he was guided by several U.S. Supreme Court rulings that were “crystal clear” regarding same-day registration. He cited one ruling that says that “a person does not have a federal constitutional right to walk up to a voting place on Election Day and demand a ballot.”
Kravitz said that the plaintiffs, being dissatisfied by the work of the state’s General Assembly, were now turning to “an unelected federal judge to achieve what they have been unable to obtain” from the legislature.
Adults must register at least seven days before an election, which lawmakers have said is necessary to avoid Election Day confusion and to allow registrars to prepare an official list of eligible voters in all 169 cities and towns.
The federal lawsuit, which was decided in New Haven, was filed by individuals and a coalition of six public-interest groups: the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, Connecticut Common Cause, Connecticut Public Interest Research Group, Connecticut Democracy Works, ACORN and People for the American Way.
Advocates repeatedly have tried to persuade the legislature to change the law, and they nearly succeeded in 2003. But Rowland vetoed that bill, saying that same-day registration would lead to voter fraud by making it easier for a person to vote at the last minute in a town where he or she does not live.
Politicians in cities such as Waterbury and Bridgeport have complained for years about fraud and outdated registration lists that often include people who are dead. Allowing same-day registration and voting would open the door to even more abuse, defenders of the status quo say, and make it harder to detect.
The proponents reject those arguments, saying that the state’s computerized voter registration database — completed in January 2004 after Rowland’s veto — could catch a person who tries to vote in two towns under the same name.
In their 35-page lawsuit, the plaintiffs argued that allowing same-day registration would increase voter turnout. The six states that allowed it at the time — Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Idaho and Minnesota — scored about 10 to 12 percentage points higher for voter turnout than the national average.