By Daniela Altimari, Hartford Courant
In November of 2014, Connecticut voters will consider amending the state Constitution to eliminate restrictions on early voting and allow greater access to absentee ballots.
The referendum is the result of a joint resolution approved by the state Senate just after 11 p.m. on Wednesday. The 22-14 vote was the last legislative step in the two-year, bicameral process required when the state Constitution is amended.
If voters approve the amendment to the state Constitution, lawmakers would be empowered to craft legislation allowing for the voting changes.
Supporters characterized the measure as a progressive reform that could enhance democracy by opening up the electoral process and modernizing the state’s voting laws.
“Our democracy works best when the greatest numbers of citizens are able to participate,” Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams said after the vote “By removing unnecessary obstacles to voting, we protect peoples’ right to vote and ensure their voices are heard.”
Both Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill hailed the measure. “Voting is a great responsibility and this amendment assures the voting rights of every Connecticut resident whether or not they can get to the polls on Election Day,” Malloy said in a statement.
“While some states are working to suppress voter turnout, we are working to encourage greater turnout by increasing penalties on any effort to block voter access and moving our electoral system into the 21st century,” the governor said.
Merrill called Wednesday’s vote “a historic and significant step forward for modernizing elections in Connecticut.” She noted that 32 states permit some form of early voting or no-excuse absentee ballots; 30 million Americans cast early ballots in the 2012 presidential election.
“This is about allowing Connecticut voters cast their ballots in a way that works better with their busy mobile lives, and in turn getting more voters to participate in democracy,” Merrill said. “Early voting works, it is very reliable, and there is no reason we couldn’t make it work in Connecticut.”
But critics said the legislation was vaguely worded and could lead to a host of unanticipated changes to the way Connecticut conducts elections, including online voting. “It is, in my opinion, a carte blanche to change voting laws going forward,” Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, said near the start of nearly three hours of debate on the measure.
Republicans tried three times to amend the resolution, including adding a proposal that would have allowed military personnel stationed abroad to waive their right to a private ballot in order to vote by email or fax. Such a provision would boost turnout among members of the military, supporters said, but the measure was defeated.
Unlike many other states, Connecticut has fairly restrictive rules regarding absentee ballots. Under current law, voters seeking absentee ballots must provide a reason why they cannot be at the polls on Election Day. Valid excuses include military deployment, travelling out of state for business and illness. But Merrill and others say that, in an age when people travel a great deal, such requirements don’t make sense and absentee ballots should be available to anyone who seeks one — no excuses.
About 74 percent of registered voters in Connecticut cast ballots in the November, 2012 election, a turnout level Merrill called “very healthy” since portions of the state were still reeling from Storm Sandy, which hit the state just days earlier.
Yet Merrill said even more people would cast ballots if Connecticut permitted early voting and election-day registration.
House Joint Resolution 36 passed the House on April 17. It was also approved by both houses of the General Assembly during the 2012 legislative session.