The secretary of the state is pushing for a constitutional amendment to open the floor for voting law reforms that will allow early voting and absentee voting in any situation.
As part of a broad initiative to modernize Connecticut’s voting system that started in February, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is pushing for a constitutional amendment to allow the legislature to change the absentee voting rules or enact early voting. Currently, the Connecticut state constitution allows absentee voting in only six very specific cases, such as physical incapability to travel to the polls or a religious prohibition on voting in person, and bans early voting. Both Republican and Democratic state legislative leaders have expressed support for the amendment, but are divided on whether early voting or absentee voting is a better reform to pursue after the constitution is changed.
In most states, the legislature can change voting rules by simply passing a statute. But in Connecticut, the constitution restricts the legislature’s ability to act.
If the amendment is passed, the floor will be opened for discussion on two main voting reforms. One possibility is allowing absentee voting for any situation, not just the six currently specified in the constitution. Another is early voting, which allows citizens to vote at their convenience.
An absentee ballot can be mailed in to the polling station, but early voting takes place in-person at a polling station. Av Harris, the director of communications for the Secretary of the State, said last Friday that both provide a lot more flexibility and convenience, making it easier to vote.
“You have to think of voters as your customers,” Harris said. “If you’re a business you have to serve your customers very well.”
Paul Gronke, a professor at Reed College and director of the Early Voting Information Center, said that the whole country was moving in the direction of early and absentee voting.
Gronke predicted that between 35 and 40 percent of the United State electorate will vote early or absentee in 2012. Oregon, for example, no longer has an election day — all voting in Oregon is by mail. He said that non-conventional voting did not benefit one party or the other, though Republicans tend to vote absentee while Democrats prefer to vote early.
Of the two voting reforms, early voting is generating more pushback.
Last week the CT News Junkie reported that Republican House Minority Leader Larry Cafero had come out in favor of a constitutional amendment, but against the concept of early voting. Democrat Senate Majority Martin Looney expressed similar opinions to the News on Friday.
“From what I understand, the Oregon system is one I would not support,” Looney said. “There is no election day at all. There is no actual voting.”
Looney described the act of voting as “a communal experience” that is valuable for its own sake. He also raised questions of security that arise if the state moves away from a secret ballot. For example, he said, an employer could demand that all employees use their mail-in ballots to vote for a specific candidate.
“What is the price that’s going to be paid potentially for increased convenience?” Looney asked.
A third concern Looney expressed about early voting was the monetary cost. Harris said that although early voting is more convenient for voters, the option creates funding problems because polling stations must be staffed and secure for longer periods of time.
He added that establishing early voting places would be especially difficult in Connecticut, compared to states like North Carolina or Florida, because Connecticut has no county governments. This means that all municipalities would need to establish their own early polling place, which would be an added burden to their conventional Election Day costs. Nonetheless the state should explore more possibilities to make voting more convenient and accessible, Harris said.
Democrats control both the State Senate and State Assembly, but they will need Republican support in order to amend the constitution. An amendment either a three-quarters vote or a majority vote in both houses of the General Assembly repeated in two consecutive legislative sessions, as well as majority vote in a statewide referendum, setting a high bar for legislators to overcome. Looney also expressed his support for an amendment in an interview with the News, but said he wasn’t sure if one could pass.Harris said he thinks there are “promising signals” from the House Republicans.
Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia currently allow absentee voting without requiring a specific excuse.