Voting advocates, state legislators work to put Connecticut on the “cutting edge” of voter accessibility
State Legislators are working to finalize details around multiple bills to cement access to the ballot in Connecticut.
Courtesy of John Phelan
As federal efforts to protect voting access have stalled amid Republican opposition, Connecticut advocates are pushing the state legislators to protect voting rights in the state.
The Connecticut Voting Rights Act, which has been dedicated to late Civil Rights Leader John Lewis, was passed by the Government and Elections Committee on Monday and now faces a vote in the State House. The bill will expand language accessibility at polling sites, require preclearance for voting rule changes in municipalities with a history of voter intimidation and allow voters to sue municipalities for laws or actions that are intimidatory or discriminatory.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups across Connecticut are working with state legislators to pass legislation to enact the state constitutional amendment allowing for early voting. The amendment was proposed in a referendum in the 2022 midterm elections where state voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of the change.
Prior to the referendum that authorized the amendment, Connecticut was one of four states that did not allow early voting. Legislators and advocacy groups are currently working to decide if the early voting period will be 14 or 18 days and if cities with larger populations will have more than one early voting location.
“The CVRA will make Connecticut a national leader in protecting the right to vote which is something we have been lagging behind on,” Jess Zaccagino, ACLU Policy Council, told the News. “This is happening as voters across the country face honestly the greatest assault on voting rights since Jim Crow, so this is a really important time to cement robust voting rights on the state level.”
Currently, only 10 towns in Connecticut are required to provide accessible language services for people who do not speak English, according to Yanidsi Velez, the New England regional director for the Hispanic Federation.
New Haven and other cities across the state have seen an increase in residents who do not speak English in recent years thus causing an increased need for accessible language services at polling booths.
“The expanded language provision is intrinsic to the work that we do because we always want to ensure that Latino voters have access to their own language,” Velez told the News. “The Latino population has increased by 30 percent in the last ten years which means for the first time in Connecticut’s history there are more than half a million Latino Connecticut residents.”
The CVRA also includes preclearance requirements under which towns and cities with a history of voter disenfranchisement or intimidation will be required to clear any changes to election rules with the Secretary of the State or or the superior court for the judicial district of Hartford.
According to Steven Lance, a Policy Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the CVRA preclearance requirements mirror the federal model enacted during the Civil Rights era that required many states with a history of voter suppression to clear any changes to their election rules through the Federal Justice Department. Their requirements were later struck down by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder decision.
“This bill speaks to some of the unique challenges in Connecticut where we have hyper local government,” Matt Lesser, a State Senator who is a cosponsor of the bill, told the News. “We have no counties and each of our 169 towns does something differently so ensuring uniformity is really important and that’s particularly important in terms of making sure that local decisions are done fairly.”
The bill also empowers citizens in a town or city to bring concerns about voting practices or rules to their municipality and settle the dispute out of court, according to Valencia Richardson, legal counsel for voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center. In this process, voters would write a letter to their municipality and then negotiate a settlement with their municipality.
The bill requires this step to occur before a formal lawsuit is filed. Through this process, citizens will be able to arbitrate disputes with their municipalities while avoiding an often onerous legal process. Instead, the municipality and citizens will negotiate a settlement and enter it with the local judicial authority.
“This goes beyond the federal Voting Rights act since it is encouraging negotiations between voters, and this entire section does not even exist in the federal Voting Rights act so it’s a real innovation,” Richardson told the News.
The bill also empowers citizens to sue municipalities and people who engage in voter intimidation.
Lesser told the News that in his constituency there have been instances of former elected officials threatening baseless investigations if college students in his district registered to vote.
“This bill would penalize anyone who knowingly used any deceptive or fraudulent devices with any elector’s right to vote,” Co-Chair of the State Legislature’s Government and Elections Committee Representative Matt Blumenthal told the News. “For example, people who distribute incorrect information about when an election is occurring or where it is located.”
Finally, the bill will also create a statewide database about voter statistics and intimidation information. In total all of these proposals are expected to cost roughly 2.5 million dollars.
Zaccagino told the News that the bill will potentially provide information and data for lawsuits to help fight long lines in Black and Brown communities in New Haven.
“Even for large organizations like the ACLU, it is onerous to see and collect information about voter statistics and intimidation for lawsuits to ensure that all citizens have easy access to the ballot,” Zaccagino told the News.
The state is also currently working on finalizing details around early voting. Currently, three bills have been put forward by the Government and Elections committee. The state is deciding if there will be 14 or 18 days of early voting.
Advocates including Melvin Medina, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at The Connecticut Project, who told the News that the current bill also only requires one early voting place even in cities in New Haven with tens of thousands of early voters.
“It’s important for larger cities to have more voting locations because accessibility is accountability,” Medina told the News.
Both the early voting bills and the CTVRA will now go to the Appropriations committee since they will both have an impact on the state’s spending.