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May 26, 2020

On easing absentee voting, Connecticut looks to November and beyond

Photo | CT Mirror Ned Lamont greets voters at a Wethersfield poll on Election Day in 2018.

In many states, it’s no big deal to vote by absentee ballot. In Connecticut, getting one because you anticipate a long day at work on Election Day or are uneasy about going to the polls in flu season requires telling a fib. A felony, technically.

An executive order signed last week by Gov. Ned Lamont temporarily loosens Connecticut’s unusually tight restrictions on the use of absentee ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic, but only for the August 11 primary and only if there is no vaccine by then.

Whether to offer the same convenience in November is up to the General Assembly.

“I don’t know how the legislature doesn’t do it for November. It’s my number one, number two, number three and number four issue,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, who wants a vote by the Fourth of July. “We need to go in and vote on it.”

But the regulation and use of absentee ballots is an issue that long has confounded Connecticut lawmakers, complicated by an unusual state constitution. Now, it also is an element of the re-election campaign of President Donald J. Trump, the nation’s tweeter-in-chief.

“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting,” the president tweeted in April. “Democrats are clamoring for it. Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

The issue is something of a political Rorschach test: Do you see the issue as one of ballot access or ballot security? Democrats tend to say the former, though hardly all of them; Republicans the latter, though the GOP has advocates of early voting and no-fault absentee ballots.

Lamont, a political outsider who took office 16 months ago, said he does not understand why voting by mail is accepted in some Republican states, yet is the subject in Connecticut of “some Republican pushback.”

The president, he noted, voted by absentee.

The public-health emergency that granted Lamont sweeping powers to change statutes and regulations expires on Sept. 9. But he supports lawmakers passing legislation that would extend his absentee-ballot rules through November.

“If we don’t have a vaccine available by then, you still don’t want 65-year-olds going out and having to vote,” said Lamont, who is 66. “You still don’t want people with pre-existing conditions to vote. I think it’s very important that they don’t give up their right to vote by only being able to wait in line at some polling booth.”

The Connecticut Constitution says the General Assembly may provide by law the means to vote in cases of “absence from the city or town of which they are inhabitants or because of sickness, or physical disability or because the tenets of their religion forbid secular activity.” 

The legislature further clarified “sickness” in state law as “his or her illness.”

Lamont’s executive order amended the law to temporarily treat sickness more broadly. It says an absentee ballot may be obtained and used in August “if he or she is unable to appear at his or her polling place during the hours of voting because of the sickness of COVID-19.”

A referendum on changing the constitution by leaving control over absentee ballots to the legislature failed by in 2014 by a vote of 491,447 to 453,070. Putting a new question on the ballot is a two-year effort.

Ritter said he believes one portion of the state constitution’s limits on absentee voting itself are unconstitutional. It makes no allowance for someone who is working during the polling hours to get an absentee, unless their job is in a community other than the one where they live and vote.

Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said he agrees that modern life requires great access to absentee ballots.

“No-excuse absentee balloting is something whose time has come,” Hwang said, but he believes the legislature should pursue a constitutional amendment.

Fears about the potential for fraud 
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said she is comfortable with the governor’s order for August, less so with the prospect of a special session in June to alter the rules for November.

“You cannot use a health emergency to try to push through policy,” she said. “It should be debated when the legislature returns for the full session, when there can be public hearings and a full debate. It should not be jammed through.”

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said, “We don’t know what the world will look like on August 11, much less in November. People are saying [COVID] is going to re-emerge, and maybe it does. But it’s a little early on those issues.

Like the president, Fasano talks of the potential for fraud. 

“People say Republicans want to suppress the vote. No, we want just want to make sure every vote is legitimate,” Fasano said. “Every illegal vote diminishes the influence of a vote properly cast.”

Trump clearly views the issue as one that can help mobilize his base. 

He has falsely accused Michigan officials of mailing ballots to all voters. The state is one of several, including blue Connecticut and at least four other states controlled by Republicans, that have mailed or are planning to mail applications for absentee ballots to every voter, not actual ballots.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said Oregon votes exclusively by mail and has very little fraud, but it has occurred in Connecticut. He was one of the legislators who sponsored a law tightening the rules for absentee ballots after allegations of fraud in a 1986 primary for delegates to a Democratic gubernatorial convention.

Looney said legislative leaders are talking about how to extend Lamont’s order to the November elections.

Anticipating GOP opposition, the Connecticut Citizen Action Group is targeting Republicans state senators with Facebook ads complaining that they are asking some voters to choose between risking their health or giving up their right to vote.

“My father’s Republican Party never would have played these games,” said Tom Swan, the executive director of CCAG. “Jodi Rell would have made sure that people could vote without risking their lives.”

The ads themselves have become issues. 

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, accused her Democratic opponent, Bob Statchen, of sharing responsibility for the CCAG ad targeting her. Statchen currently is on National Guard duty related to the pandemic and is legally barred from any political activity, much less coordinating with an independent group 

“She falsely attacks a guy serving on active duty?” said Mike Farina, a Democratic campaign consultant whose clients include Statchen. “I think it is a losing issue for Republicans. This is really a question of choosing between voting and public health. Voting should not put public health at risk.”

Somers did not return calls for comment.

Liz Kurantowicz, a Republican campaign consultant, said the issue is less partisan than some Democrats would suggest.

“I think clearly Connecticut’s system is begging for reform, both from a voter security perspective and making sure our system is responsive to instances of fraud, which we can’t deny,” said Kurantowicz, who advised the House GOP caucus in the 2018 campaigns.

“Ask Marilyn Moore how she feels about absentee ballot fraud.”

Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, had more votes at the polls in a mayoral primary last year, only to lose on the basis of votes cast by absentee. She said she suspects some of those ballots were “harvested” and cast illegally.

Her campaign wrote letters to every voter that received an absentee ballot, a matter of public record. Some of the letters were returned undeliverable, but yet some of those voters were checked off as having voted by absentee.

“The letters came back, and I still have the envelopes,” Moore said.

Her political friends generally are in favor of easier access, but Moore said she is wary of supporting it unless that access comes with closer monitoring.

A federal mail-in voting law
This month, Congressional House Democrats approved a new coronavirus relief package, dubbed the HEROES Act, that would mandate all states to send all voters a ballot in case of emergencies. The bill, which attracted only one GOP vote, would also require universal “no-excuse” absentee voting, online and same-day voter registration and expanded early voting, among other changes.

The ambitious, bill, however, will not be taken up by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, nor are the voting measures likely to be included in any compromise bill to combat the pandemic.

There are other Democratic bills that would establish a federal mail in voting law, including the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act backed by Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. That bill would mandate that voters in all states have 20 days of early in-person voting and no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail and ensure states begin processing (but not counting) votes cast during early voting or by mail 14 days before Election Day to avoid delays in counting votes on Election Day.

The bill would also give all voters the option of online requests for absentee ballots. But, like the voting provisions in the HEROES Act, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act and similar Democratic measures have a slim chance of becoming law because of the political polarization the issue engenders.

Voters, however, seem less polarized than the politicians they’ve elected.

A recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll showed that nearly three in five voters nationwide said they either strongly or somewhat support a federal law that would mandate that states “provide mail-in ballots to all voters for elections occurring during the coronavirus pandemic.” Only about 25% of voters polled said they either somewhat or strongly oppose the idea.

However, support for the idea split along ideological lines in that poll. A supermajority of voters who are registered or lean Democratic — 77% —backed mail in voting. Republicans were more divided: 48% said they were opposed and 42% said they were in favor.

Trump has said that expanding absentee voting and voting by mail would hurt GOP candidates and “if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” But there is no widely accepted evidence showing that increased voter turnout automatically benefits Democrats.

A new study by Stanford University of counties in California, Utah, and Washington indicated there was a modest 2% increase in turnout when voters had unrestricted access to mail-in ballots and no clear partisan advantage for either political party when they switched to holding elections almost entirely by mail.

“Our paper has a clear takeaway: Claims that vote-by-mail fundamentally advantages one party over the other appear overblown,” the Stamford researchers said.

Meanwhile, in a recent article for FiveThirtyEight, political scientist Lee Drutman said voting by mail is more convenient for some voters and more difficult for others, cancelling each other out and “dampening any partisan advantage.”

“Moreover, the vast majority of nonvoters don’t participate, not because it’s too inconvenient to vote, but because voting isn’t a habit for them,” Drutman said.

The Connecticut Secretary of State’s office said that in 2016 and 2018, under Connecticut’s restrictive absentee ballot law, the towns with highest total number of absentee ballots were Greenwich, Fairfield, Norwalk, Stamford, and West Hartford, and the towns with highest percentage of absentee ballots cast were Canaan, Roxbury, Salisbury, Sharon, Washington, Westport, and Weston.

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