Republicans and Democrats clashed Saturday night before approving Election Day voter registration – a controversial issue at the state Capitol for more than a decade.
By a vote of 19 to 16, the measure passed on mostly party lines with two Democrats against. Sen. Edith Prague was absent from the vote.
Democrats hailed the bill as a great method of increasing voter turnout, while Republicans said the chances of voter fraud are high as registrars will scramble to register new voters on the already-chaotic election day.
“The political reality is that voter interest peaks in the final weeks of a campaign,” said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, a Milford Democrat. “This is nothing new to our country. We know that it increases voter turnout.”
Currently, 10 states allow same-day registration, and the top four states in the most recent presidential election for turnout – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, and New Hampshire – were all same-day states, she said. North Carolina and Iowa both “saw large increases in voter turnout” in 2008 – including more than 250,000 new voters on Election Day in North Carolina, she said.
The Connecticut bill will not take effect until the municipal elections in November 2013 – and will not be effective for this year’s presidential race.
In Maine, Election Day registration has been the law for more than 40 years – long before widespread use of computer software to check registration records. When the state legislature repealed it two years ago, ”the Maine voters supported a referendum to restore it,” Slossberg said.
“Some of the concern centers on the potential for fraud,” Slossberg said in her remarks on the Senate floor. “Our state and federal penalties for fraud are severe. … Election fraud is extremely rare. There hasn’t been any significant voter fraud in terms of registration. They have to swear under penalty of perjury that they are who they say they are. All of these things work together to try to increase voter turnout. … In regard to fraud, we need to focus on the facts, not on fear. … Most importantly, there is no evidence of voter fraud in these states in terms of registration.”
But Sen. Len Suzio, a conservative Republican from Meriden, said he received an email from the Democratic registrar of voters in Meriden, who said that the bill was “pure insanity.”
From his own informal survey, Suzio said that 58 out of 63 registrars – both Republican and Democrat – were against the bill. He said citizens can already register by mail seven days a week.
“This bill, as proposed, is potentially denying the right to vote to Connecticut voters,” Suzio said.
“Election Day is a chaotic day. Less than two years ago, we ran out of ballots,” said Sen. Andrew Roraback, a Goshen Republican who represents 15 communities in Litchfield County.
Senate Republican leader John McKinney, who opposed the bill, said that the huge increase in voter registration in North Carolina in 2008 was generated by the excitement of the race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.
“We don’t need to pass a law. We need to do a better job” representing voters, McKinney said.
He told the hypothetical tale of a college student, living in Ohio, who attends Fairfield University.
“It would be easy for that person to get an absentee ballot, vote in Ohio, show up on Election Day in Fairfield and vote … and the town would not be able to tell whether that person is registered in Ohio,” McKinney said. ”There’s no dispute that it happened in that presidential election [in the past]. There’s no verification to cover all of the instances to prevent any type of mis-voting.’’
Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams said elected officials need to encourage everyone to vote.
“What we want to see in Connecticut is the highest possible percentage” in elections, he said. “There are many folks who don’t concentrate on the election until the last couple of weeks.”
The Senators debated late Saturday afternoon and early Saturday evening as television screens across Connecticut – and in the Capitol – were tuned to the Kentucky Derby.
“Today is a great day in Connecticut,” Malloy said in a statement. “Despite the pervasive climate across the U.S. to restrict voting rights, Connecticut has moved in the opposite direction—one that ensures the integrity of our electoral process and fair, accessible elections. People are the key to our democracy, and this legislation improves participation in the most fundamental way —the ballot box. I applaud the General Assembly action on this bill.”
“These reforms allow more people to have their voices to be heard in a place where it truly matters – the voting booth,” Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman said in a statement. “More of our residents will have the power to decide who they want to represent them in government, how they want their tax dollars spent, what kind of health care system they want and how they want their children to be educated. And I believe there is nothing more important than that.”
The bill allows voters with a valid driver’s license to register online.
Malloy unveiled the legislation on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, and the slain civil rights leader’s son, Martin Luther King III, recently traveled to Hartford to extol its virtues. Malloy worked closely on the issue with Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.