After widespread ballot shortages in last November’s election tossed the result of the gubernatorial race up in the air for days, new Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is pushing for major reforms to the way Connecticut runs its elections.
In a press conference Monday in Hartford, Merrill proposed four pieces of legislation that would help prevent another Election Day fiasco — one major proposal that would require municipalities to report to Merrill’s office the number of ballots they had ordered in advance of election day and another that would open the door for more absentee voting. The proposals received bipartisan support from legislators Monday, but met opposition from the committee responsible for enforcing elections in Connecticut towns.
“What I am proposing here are targeted, common-sense changes that I believe will in the short term improve the way our elections are run and in the long term lead to making voting easier and more convenient,” Merrill said in a statement.
The state would first need a constitutional amendment to implement absentee elections; in addition to a two-thirds majority approval in the state legislature, voters must approve all constitutional amendments. Merrill’s plan calls for the vote-by-mail option to go before voters as early as November 2012 once the proposal receives approval from the general assembly.
Currently, around 10 percent of voters vote by mail, but state laws limit absentee ballots to the ill, the disabled and those who are out of town on Election Day. Merrill wants to boost that percentage to 50 percent to allow for smoother election day procedures.
Flanked by state legislators during a press conference at the State Capitol building in Hartford, Merrill pointed out that 35 other states have already adopted vote-by-mail options, and that some, such as Oregon, have done away with traditional polling places altogether and run entirely mail-in elections.
However, the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission—an independent agency that works to ensure the legitimacy of state elections—publicly opposed absentee balloting in testimony presented to the general assembly’s government administration and elections committee Monday.
The commission expressed concerns about the integrity of a vote-by-mail system, saying that a “no-excuse absentee” system lacks “the traditional controls of a polling place.”
Just as she faced criticism for removing some of these “traditional controls,” Merrill sought to expand her office’s control over elections in the state.
Merrill highlighted local control of elections as an outdated system that requires more oversight, as the problems on Election Day demonstrate. In Bridgeport, thousands of voters were turned away from the polls last November when precincts ran out of ballots. It was later revealed that elections officials in the city had only ordered 21,000 ballots for the city’s 69,000 voters; many pointed fingers at then-Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz ’83 for not exercising more oversight as the state’s chief elections official.
“The bottom line is that no registered voter who wants to cast a ballot on Election Day should ever be turned away from the polls,” Merrill said in a written statement Monday.
Joining Merrill at the conference were members of the general assembly’s elections committee, in front of whom she testified later Monday morning. Support at the press conference came from both sides of the aisle — the committee’s two Democratic chairs and its ranking Republican were all in attendance.
For his part, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. welcomes any changes that increase voter turnout, said City Hall spokesman Adam Joseph. But DeStefano did not come out for or against mail-in voting just yet, saying that it needs more examination first.
“It’s certainly something that deserves to be studied and looked into. It should be studied to extent that it increases voter turnout,” Joseph said. He added that the Mayor supports any measure that increases communication between cities and the Secretary’s office, “especially in light of last November’s election and the surrounding controversy.”
Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch expressed support for the reforms Monday, adding in a statement that centralization will help ensure elections run smoothly.
Special elections will be held Feb. 22 to replace eight Democrats who vacated their offices to take posts in the Malloy administration, and one who resigned.