The state Senate voted Wednesday for a rare Constitutional amendment that would make it much easier to vote by absentee ballot – requiring no reason or excuse at all.
The measure, if passed by the voters in November 2014, would remove all restrictions on obtaining absentee ballots, which are currently granted under certain circumstances such as being away at college or being disabled.
The Senate voted 21 to 14 in favor of the historic measure with one senator, Edith Prague of Columbia, absent.
Sen. Gayle Slossberg, a Milford Democrat who co-chairs the legislative committee that oversees elections, said the move would open up voting for more citizens who get home too late to cast a ballot by the time the polls close at 8 p.m.
”This is important to commuters,” Slossberg said.
But Republicans complained that the measure would open up a wide variety of issues, including Saturday voting, online voting, and early in-person voting that would allow citizens to cast ballots, for example, over the period of a week or more. They said they were concerned about potential voter fraud.
“The request before us is far too broad,” said Sen. Michael McLachlan, a Danbury Republican who added that ”changes to election law should be a slow-going process.”
Permanent absentee ballots were not allowed until 1932 in Connecticut, he said.
“I don’t believe we should lower the bar … without a full deliberative process,” he said. “Let’s not make it include all kinds of things.”
McLachlan said he favored online voting for members of the military under certain circumstances, but that currently has not been placed into law.
“Changing the Constitution is a big deal. It should be done methodically. It should be done slowly,” said Sen. L. Scott Frantz, a Republican who noted that at least one-third of the Senators were absent from the debate at about 4 p.m. Wednesday. “We are the Constitution state, after all. … We don’t want to end up in a can of worms down the road.”
McLachlan agreed that Constitutional amendments are rare and should only be taken with great care. As such, he offered an amendment to sharply narrow the Constitutional amendment to cover absentee ballots only. The amendment was rejected, 21 to 14, on a strict party line vote with one Democrat absent.
Senate GOP leader John McKinney of Fairfield said the changes were so important that the entire Connecticut electorate needs to be involved.
“We’re not saying to the people: do you want online voting? Do you want Saturday voting?” McKinney said.
Under the state’s rules, the Constitutional amendment will not be sent to the ballot for voters to decide in November 2012 because it failed to gain a 75 percent majority in the House. The measure passed previously by 97-50 in the House, but 114 votes were needed in the 151-member House chamber.
As a result, the measure will now go back to the legislature next year and would need only a majority vote again in each chamber. If that occurs, the measure would be placed on the ballot in November 2014 – under the complex rules for Constitutional amendments.
Democrats hailed the measure as a move to encourage voters to take part in democracy. They noted that the changes would not become effective until being passed in a statewide election.
“Whether you are a commuter who doesn’t get home before the polls close or a caretaker who can’t leave the house to cast a ballot, your vote still matters,” Slossberg said in a statement after the vote. “People should not have to choose between their life obligations and their right to vote. That’s not a fair choice. This resolution starts the conversation about a possible change to our Constitution that would increase voter participation by making it easier for people to cast a ballot.”
During the House debate two weeks ago, House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk said the resolution goes beyond the narrow issue of absentee ballots.
“In regard to the concept, we are 100 percent on board,” Cafero said. “Many of us wanted to have no-excuse absentee ballots. The bill before us gives the possibility of more than that.”
The possibilities could include early voting, which would allow people to vote over a period of a week before the actual Election Day. Many elections have been close in Connecticut in recent years, and Democrat Dannel P. Malloy was elected governor in November 2010 by 6,400 votes in the closest gubernatorial election in 56 years.
If approved by the legislature again next year, the question that would be placed on the ballot for voters would be: “Shall the Constitution of the State be amended to remove restrictions concerning absentee ballots and to permit a person to vote without appearing at a polling place on the day of an election?”
Cafero, though, offered an amendment two weeks ago, which failed on a party-line vote, to clarify the language and limit the issue exclusively to absentee ballots. The new question would have been: “Shall the Constitution of the State be amended to remove restrictions concerning absentee ballots?”
In opposing Cafero’s amendment, Rep. Russ Morin, co-chairman of the committee that oversees elections, said, “This absolutely narrows down the resolution in front of us. … I don’t agree that the resolution isn’t clear.”
House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey said Connecticut is one of only two states that places such constitutional restrictions on whether lawmakers can change these particular election laws. The constitutional controls over Connecticut lawmakers in that regard date to 1932, “and a lot has happened in those 80 years” since then, Sharkey said. “It does not make sense” 80 years later, he said.
“I hear a different message from my constituents,” Sharkey said after Cafero’s comments. “My constituents ask me, ‘Why is it so difficult to vote by absentee ballot? I would love to be able to vote, but I can’t because we have the voting laws that we currently do regarding absentee ballots. Why can’t we do multiple-day voting?’ … The answer to them is we can’t because our constitution prevents us from taking up these measures.”