In public hearing, Connecticut residents debate framework for early voting
Nicole Chen told lawmakers Wednesday that while her resume doesn’t show that she has any election expertise, she has little doubt that the implementation of early voting in Connecticut would help make this country’s democracy “free and available to all.”
Chen, a student at Yale University, was among the dozens of state residents who publicly testified in support of in-person early voting at a public hearing for the measure, in addition to a constitutional amendment that would permanently allow residents to cast mail ballots without having to provide an excuse.
The public hearing held in Hartford’s Legislative Office Building was the first since voters overwhelmingly cast their support for in-person early voting during November’s general election, which opened the door for lawmakers to negotiate and pass a law to implement the practice.
Connecticut is one of four states without early voting, effectively disenfranchising voters who can’t afford to wait in long lines or make it to their polling locations on Election Day — many of whom are people of color and people with low income.
Wednesday’s gathering largely focused on three bills — referenced throughout the hearing as starting points — that would establish the popular voting method as soon as 2023. Each bill would mandate 10, 14 and 18 days of early voting.
“It is time for Connecticut to listen to their voters,” said Chen, speaking in support of the bill that would establish 14 days of early voting. “It is time for Connecticut to give its constituency the choice of education and training to support early voting procedures. It is time for Connecticut to catch up and be at the forefront of sustaining democratic institutions.”
Stephanie Thomas, the state’s top election official, was the first to publicly testify Wednesday in favor of early voting, specifically backing the bill that would allow for 10 days.
Thomas said she settled on the time after reviewing a recent study that showed longer periods of early voting having less success over time, “because people tend to appear the first couple of days.” The former legislator also said people she spoke with expressed a desire for more weekend time to vote.
The legislation she endorsed would also provide same-day election and same-day primary registration during early voting periods, as well as require her office “to undertake efforts to educate the public” and “train registrars of voters” on the matter. She’s also recommending one polling place per town during the early voting period.
Regardless of which bill gleans the most support, she said, the two most important components of any of the legislation are the need for state funding and timely passage “so that there is time to implement it seamlessly.”’
“We believe all three versions are a solid starting point and include many of the Secretary Office’s logistical considerations and policy proposals that our election staff have weighed in on,” said Thomas, a Democrat. “We think this will help to create a program that can be instituted seamlessly while providing voters with greatly increased access to the ballot box.”
Without an agreed-upon framework for early voting, it is unclear how much the effort will cost. Gov. Ned Lamont also did not include funding for the measure in his proposed budget.
Republicans Sen. Rob Sampson and Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco — both of whom represent Wolcott and have publicly opposed expanding voting access, while Sampson has raised baseless claims of election fraud — prompted questions to speakers Wednesday about how the state would fund the effort, accommodate election workers and maintain election security.
Both GOP lawmakers indicated that they favor a shorter early voting period, around three to five days.
Sampson also questioned the need for having both no-excuse absentee voting — which the state has allowed since the height of the pandemic but isn’t written into law — and in-person early voting, which he believes accomplishes the same goal.
But both measures are different: No-excuse absentee voting allows residents to request and cast a ballot before Election Day through an in-person dropbox or through mail without an excuse. In-person early voting typically means voting in person, only.
Mastrofrancesco asked Thomas whether it was her recommendation for the state to fund early voting temporarily or permanently. Thomas indicated the latter.
“I believe that the right to vote is our most important responsibility as citizens and that the state needs to fund our elections. Short of that, the federal government needs to fund our elections,” Thomas said. “So I would be in favor of this funding continuing forever and ever. But ultimately, that’s going to be a decision that this group, the General Assembly, will need to make. I think state investment would be a signal to voters that we actually believe we work for them.”
In November, more than 60% of Connecticut voters cast ballots in affirmative to the early voting question: “Shall the Constitution of the State be amended to permit the General Assembly to provide for early voting?”
It was the second time that the convenience voting measure reached voters, the first of which failed by more than 38,000 votes during the 2014 midterm election. Political experts attributed the previous rejection of early voting to confusion, uncertainty about giving the state legislature more power, and racial and partisan divisions, according to The Hartford Courant.
During the 2014 election, early voting was also grouped with no-excuse absentee voting.
People testifying in Wednesday’s public hearing — including election workers — spoke largely in favor of no-excuse absentee voting, which, if passed among a simple majority in the current legislature, would go to the ballot for voters to decide in 2024.
Connecticut’s voting laws are enshrined in the state constitution, meaning any changes to it must first pass through the House and Senate with three-fourths majority support, or a simple majority in both chambers in two successive legislative terms, and then majority support among voters.
“I just want to say that we can do this. We can figure this out. The registrars can handle this, and the town clerks can help us support this,” Elisa Beckett-Flores, a Democratic registrar in New Britain, said Wednesday about early voting.
“We can also do no-excuse absentee balloting,” she said. “It’s just the concerns over staffing, space, security and financial burden. It really comes down to the cost. We need the state investment into elections to help support these initiatives, and we also need to get the word out to the voters about all these changes.”
Leslie Blank of Norwalk, who submitted written testimony for the hearing, said Connecticut voters “want choice” and that the legislature must implement and fund voters’ wishes on the matter.
“CT Voters have spoken not once, but twice, on referenda to move Connecticut into the 21st century on voting rights,” Blank wrote. “We cannot continue to wage in the company of Alabama, Mississippi and New Hampshire in restricting access to the ballot.”
Steve Zales, who didn’t identify his whereabouts in his written testimony, said if there is a state in this country that should be “among the most voter-favorable, it should be Connecticut.”
“We need to change from being among the least favorable to among the most favorable, provide sufficient funds to support those efforts and communication vehicles to inform and educate the public so that those who would like to vote early can,” Zales wrote. “Please take this opportunity to right the wrongs of decades before us, and let Connecticut voters be fully heard.”
Chen, talking to legislators on Zoom, said lawmakers supporting the voting measures communicates solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of constituents who made their wishes clear last November.
“And by association, you will be demonstrating your dedication to ensure that all eligible voters of Connecticut feel represented and valued,” she said.