A legislative committee heard overwhelming support Tuesday for proposed legislation to expand absentee ballot access for the November election to those without an excuse.
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During a virtual public hearing before the Government Administration and Elections Committee, many commenters suggested that without absentee ballots, Connecticut residents will be forced to choose between their health and their right to vote.
Some who spoke out said forcing people to wait in lines to vote during a pandemic will result in lower voter turnout.
Laurie Sweet of the community group Hamden Action said she supports the bill -- with the revision that it should not be limited to absentee ballots for this election.
“If we remove these four words, ‘such electors or persons,’ from the draft bill, it would ensure that so long [as] there is a pandemic in America, eligible Connecticut voters will have access to voting rights, including special elections in 2021,” said Sweet.
Gemeem Davis of Generation Now in Bridgeport said she also supports the bill, with amendments. Davis said something needs to be done to prevent absentee ballot abuse, a problem the city has struggled with in the past.
“Bridgeport needs to have an election monitor in this bill,” said Davis.
During last year’s Democratic mayoral primary between incumbent Joe Ganim and state Sen. Marilyn Moore, Moore accused Ganim’s campaign of pressuring absentee ballot holders to sway the election.
Still, support for the bill wasn’t unqualified. Sue Larsen works for the registrar of voters in South Windsor. She told the committee more access to same-day registration and a potentially higher number of absentee ballots could mean difficulties in tabulating results.
“It’s not going to be as easy as we were used to, where the registrar is sending out preliminary numbers and we are pretty sure we have given you almost everything we know to determine whether there is a winner or a loser. That’s not going to happen,” she said.
The current bill would have voters either mail their ballots or cast them in specially provided boxes that are already being placed in towns throughout the state.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, who has championed the absentee voting effort, said Connecticut is behind when it comes to voting.
Merrill told lawmakers most states already allow for early voting and absentee ballots without an excuse. She contends this eases the burden on local registrar’s offices, which now count votes all on the same day.
Merrill reminded the committee she’s introduced these measures for years but has always been blocked.
“According to recent polling, 73 percent of Connecticut voters want to be able to cast their votes by absentee ballots every year, not just in 2020,” said Merrill. “Eighty-one percent want to be able to cast their ballots prior to Election Day with early voting.”
The administration scored a win on the issue at the State Supreme Court Monday, as Chief Justice Richard Robinson dismissed a case brought by four Republican congressional candidates that would have blocked widespread absentee balloting for the Aug. 11 primaries.
And Gov. Ned Lamont reiterated his support for expanding access to vote by mail during a Tuesday afternoon news conference.
“If you’re over 65, if you’ve got a preexisting condition -- vote by mail, it’s much safer,” he urged. But he emphasized that the bill relates only to the special conditions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, and that any general extension of absentee ballot access would have to be considered separately.
“Why not make it easier for people to vote?” he said. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t do that.”
The bill must get a 75% vote in the House and Senate to pass. The House will convene in special session to consider this and three other bills Thursday.
Harriet Jones contributed to this report.