After more than five hours of debate, the state House of Representatives voted Monday night for the controversial Election Day voter registration bill that has a long history in the state legislature.
By a vote of 83 to 59, the House voted allow the same-day registration, despite complaints by opponents about potential fraud. Nine conservative Democrats broke with their party and voted against the bill. Only one Republican, Livvy Floren of Greenwich, voted in favor.
Lawmakers have been clashing for more than a decade as the issue has been blocked by a veto by then-Gov. John G. Rowland in 2003 and a federal court ruling in 2005 in Connecticut that rejected same-day registration.
Democrats have been pushing for Election Day registration for years as a visionary move to increase voter participation in a democracy. Republicans have countered that it would lead to more voter fraud as citizens could vote in multiple towns on the same day and the fraud would not be detected until after the election was over.
In an impassioned speech, House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk gave a hypothetical that “a little brat from Virginia” voted by absentee ballot in his home state and then voted while away at college in Connecticut.
“What happened to my vote that was legal?” Cafero boomed on the House floor. “What happened to my vote that was legal?”
He asked about the tight 2010 election when “whether true or not, there were widespread allegations of fraud.”
“You come up with your ID or a book bill or some freaking thing with your address on it,” Cafero said. “Since I was four years old, I knew Election Day was the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. If you can’t get it done, wait till next year, pal. Wait till next year.”
“You wanna cheat? You wanna rig an election?” Cafero asked. “Your vote’s gonna count. … Remember, disenfranchisement works both ways.”
In his final remarks for the Democrats, House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey said that the percentage of those voting has dropped sharply through the years. As such, the state needs to make it “more convenient” to vote.
“We don’t have any evidence to suggest that this terrible bogeyman that is out there will, in fact, occur,” Sharkey said after 11 p.m. “There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest … the same-day registration has created a propensity toward fraud in those states” that have adopted it.
The debate started at about 5:50 p.m. Monday in the historic Hall of the House. If passed by both chambers, the registration would not take place until the November 2013 local elections – and would not be effective for the 2012 presidential election.
Currently, 10 states have same-day voter registration, including Maine and New Hampshire. State Rep. Russ Morin, a Wethersfield Democrat, said the registration ”increases voter participation – not tremendously, but it does.”
Like other Democrats, Morin discounted the potential for increased voter fraud, saying that voters need to swear who they are.
“We have not had a voter impersonation issue in the state” in many years, Morin said, adding that voters could face federal prison terms of five years for a Class D felony and fines if they impersonate someone else.
He added later, “If you have falsely stated that you were eligible to vote, you will be punished to the full extent of the law. … It is a serious crime.”
State Rep. David Labriola, a Naugatuck Republican, said there has been fraud both in Connecticut and across the nation in various elections. He cited the widespread allegations of fraud in the 1960 presidential election between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon, as well as fraud in the 1948 U.S. Senate election of future president Lyndon Baines Johnson in Texas. In the 1986 delegate primary between Democrats Toby Moffett and Bill O’Neill, multiple people were arrested and some went to prison, he said.
“It’s just not true that we don’t have reports of fraud,” Labriola said. “We just had it in New Haven in the aldermanic election. We had allegations of fraud. … In the gubernatorial election, does anybody have confidence that we got the vote right in Bridgeport?”
In his wrap-up speech, Cafero noted that residents must currently register seven days before the election – and he said that has helped combat fraud.
“What we’ve learned is if somebody wants to commit fraud … if we catch them, they’ll get in trouble, but their vote still counts,” Cafero said after 11 p.m. Monday. “Their vote still counts. … Can you think of anything more outrageous of overturning the will of the people by fraud?”
Trying to verify whether someone is a legitimate voter will be difficult because “on Election Day, it is a chaotic day,” Caruso said, adding there would be “a high probability of fraud.”
State Rep. Christopher Davis, an East Windsor Republican who opposed the bill, asked, “If I was an illegal alien and I wanted to vote here in the state of Connecticut … what provisions in this amendment stop that from happening?”
He added, “We’re sending a signal that anyone can come and vote.”
Morin responded that the person must swear that they are an American citizen and are not currently a felon.
“Ultimately, you will be found out if you try to commit this fraud,” Morin said.
At 10:30 p.m. Monday, lawmakers were debating an amendment, Schedule F, that would require a photo ID to vote. Currently, a photo ID is needed to buy tobacco and to buy beer. In some towns, a photo ID is needed to buy spray paint, purchase fireworks, play golf on a public course in Stamford or Norwalk, buy fertilizer, cash a check, and get a library card, Republicans said. More than 100 countries around the world require photo IDs for various purchases, they said.
“I’d love to hear someone explain why it’s such a problem,” said Rep. Arthur O’Neill, the dean of the House Republican caucus.
Morin responded by saying that, nationally, 25 percent of African Americans do not have a picture identification.
Rep. Christopher Coutu, a Norwich Republican who is running for Congress in the Second District, said that voting is ”one of the most precious rights we have as Americans.” He said the state should keep the current system that requires voters to register at least seven days before an election.
Coutu questioned why thousands of students at the University of Connecticut, including many from other states and even other countries, should be able to show their student identification and gain the right to vote.
“My concern is there are some holes here if we don’t have 100 percent verification from other states,” said Coutu, who has missed numerous votes this year because of military duties out of state.
Morin said that signing up to vote would be no different than a student trying to get a drivers’ license in Connecticut.
“People have died for this right to vote,” Morin said on the House floor. “As long as they’re 18 and they’re not a criminal, they should have the right to vote.”
Republicans asked Morin a series of questions about how voters can prove that they live at a particular address or if they are an American citizen.
But Republicans said the bill would allow a person to show up at the local town hall at 7 p.m. on election night, register and then vote within the hour. By the time the fraud was detected, they said, the fraudulent votes would have been cast.
“I want to make sure that my right to vote is not diminished,” said state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, a Naugatuck attorney.
The issue has been debated many times through the years. In May 2009, the state House of Representatives debated for nearly six hours before approving the bill, 81-65. 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. She said recently that she still supports both the Democratic-written bill and a Republican plan to require photo identification before someone could vote. She was the only Republican to support the committee bill.
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.
In vetoing the bill in 2003, Rowland specifically cited the likelihood of fraud.
Proponents called the veto “shameful” and “misguided,” saying the bill would have led to higher voter participation. In 2003, proponents were upset.
“I am very angry about this,” said Rep. James O’Rourke, a Cromwell Democrat who began working on a similar bill as a legislative aide in 1985. “Less than half the eligible adults voted in the last election. But I guess that was good enough for the governor.”
O’Rourke dismissed Rowland’s concerns about fraud, noting that proponents spent hours with elections enforcement officials, as well as registrars’ and town clerks’ associations, to make sure every safeguard possible was included to minimize fraud.
“It was a bipartisan effort that finally passed, and it is a sad commentary on him as a governor that he would veto it,” O’Rourke said. He called the move “shameful.”
During a lengthy House debate that year, Rep. Selim Noujaim, a Waterbury Republican who is still in the legislature, asked how the bill would prevent a person from registering in Waterbury on Election Day and then driving to Beacon Falls to vote again.
In 2003, six states using the same-day registration had recorded a higher voter turnout than the nation’s average, according to various reports that had been circulated when the legislation was originally being proposed to the House and Senate. In those states — Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming — voter participation ranged from 54.5 to 68.8 percent, compared with 51.3 percent in other states, according to a report by a nonprofit New York-based research and advocacy group.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman hailed the passage of the bill.
“Passage of this legislation demonstrates Connecticut’s commitment to fair, accessible elections, and I applaud the House for their action on this bill. We’ve sent a clear signal to the rest of the country that Connecticut will not go in the direction of other states,” Malloy said in a statement released by his office after 11 p.m. “Using the technology we have available to preserve the integrity of our elections, expand access to the ballot box, and improve participation in the public process will allow our democracy flourish. By making our elections as open and accessible as possible, we will make sure that our residents have the representation they demand at every level of government.”
“Voting is power, and these reforms will give more Connecticut residents the power to decide who they want to represent them in government,” Lt. Governor Wyman said in a statement. “That means more of our residents will have a voice in how their tax dollars are spent, what kind of health care system we have, how their children are educated, and so many other aspects of their lives. This is a bill that will allow their voices to be heard in a place where it truly matters – the voting booth – and the importance of that cannot be overstated.”
Malloy introduced the bill early in the session on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Martin Luther King III praised the measure recently at the state Capitol in Hartford.