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After long debate, Connecticut Senate advances state voting rights act

Voter registration at Hartford City Hall in 2020.
Yehyun Kim
/
CT Mirror
Voter registration at Hartford City Hall in 2020.

The Connecticut Senate on Thursday night advanced a landmark bill intended to protect historically disenfranchised communities from discrimination at the ballot box, including key protections once considered a stronghold of the federal Voting Rights Act before it was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Senate Bill 1226, dubbed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of Connecticut — a nod to the late civil rights icon — passed on a 27-9 vote just before midnight, following hours of emotionally charged debate among lawmakers over what the proposal would accomplish. The Senate’s approval of the comprehensive bill marked the first time it passed out of either chamber since it was initially introduced in 2021.

“This legislation is named in recognition of an incredible civil rights champion and legislator who fought his entire career to expand voting rights to people in this country,” said Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly and co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, in her opening remarks.

“It is hard to put into words the immense heaviness that I feel for having the opportunity to have worked on this legislation and to lead debate on this proposal, to be a small part of the legacy of Congressman Lewis and ensuring that Connecticut is doing everything it can to lead the way in protecting voting rights,” she said.

Resembling key protections outlined in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the legislation would require municipalities with a record of voter discrimination to receive clearance from either the secretary of the state or a superior court before implementing changes to election-related policies.

At the federal level, pre-clearance was gutted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, a key provision that helped the government prevent Southern states from implementing new policies to disenfranchise Black voters.

The state-level bill would outlaw municipalities from taking actions that would interfere with the right to vote of any protected class member, defined as a class of citizens who are members of a race, color or language minority group, and require municipalities to provide language-related assistance to voters if their population comprises a certain percentage of people who speak English “less than very well.” It would allow the superior court to “order appropriate remedies” if and when it finds that a municipality violated the law.

The bill would allow residents to sue against acts of intimidation, deception or obstruction that interfere with their right to vote. Additionally, it would produce a publicly accessible database under the secretary of the state’s office providing certain elections and demographics information.

If passed by the full legislature, Connecticut would join New York and a handful of other states that have implemented similar legislation.

Thursday’s debate stretched across more than three hours, with the Democratic majority outlining a necessity to codify voting protections for the disenfranchised into state law amid an attack on ballot box access across the country — and rid the Land of Steady Habits of its reputation as one of the most restrictive in the country for voting access.

Sen. Matt Lesser has been credited with introducing the bill’s concept to the Connecticut legislature, an idea he said was brought to him from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. On Thursday, the Democrat representing Middletown told his colleagues that getting the bill passed was an important step in ensuring that voters aren’t treated differently based on their location in the state.

“If an election is conducted a little bit differently in each of those towns, if local redistricting is conducted just a little bit differently in each of those towns,” Lesser said, “and if there are protections that are not in place to ensure that on the local level people are able to cast their votes without interference, this bill seeks to do a whole bunch of important things to improve and modernize our elections in the state.”

Several Republicans shared concerns about the bill granting broad authority to the secretary of the state and superior court judges. Aside from the concerns, Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, expressed admiration for Lewis’ work in the Civil Rights Movement and as a congressman. But he and others questioned why the bill was named after Lewis, whose name remains synonymous with the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Access.

The most vocal opponent was Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, who proposed multiple amendments that failed and claimed at one point that no other senator was as committed as himself “to fighting discrimination and making sure that the laws that exist in our state apply to every person equally.”

“You can claim that a bill that is titled something about voting rights and mentioning John Lewis is going to be a positive step forward for voting rights, but that doesn’t make it so,” said Sampson, who has opposed early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and the state-level voting rights act. “I’m afraid that this bill actually has several very problematic sections.”

Three Republican lawmakers joined the Democratic majority in advancing the bill: Sens. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, and Henri Martin, R-Bristol.

Meanwhile, three of the Senate’s Black legislators — Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport, Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, and Gary Winfield, D-New Haven — used their time on the floor to voice frustrations about the lack of historical knowledge present in the chamber. Gaston pointed out that he once interned for Lewis, who fought for all people to have “an opportunity to engage in our democratic process,” he said.

The three lawmakers also highlighted an unwillingness by some to listen to the concerns of the historically disenfranchised, namely people of color, who continue to speak out against the racial inequality plaguing the state and the country, particularly at the ballot box.

“I stand here … the first Black woman to be elected for my district. That was in 2021. And sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why, 2021, I’m the first Black to represent Stamford and Darien,’” said Miller, also chair of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “This state has an issue whether we want to acknowledge it or not. And it goes back in history. We know the role that we played in slavery. I’ve had individuals who are older who said that they had to take a literacy test in Connecticut. So the problem existed and still exists.”

The bill’s passage in the Senate comes as advocates and lawmakers are attempting to build on years-long efforts to expand voting in a state with a history of curtailing access. Ironically, Connecticut was the first state to implement literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting, a practice outlawed by the federal Voting Rights Act.

Senate lawmakers are soon expected to debate bills that would establish two weeks of early voting and allow voters to decide on no-excuse absentee voting. Both measures have already passed through the House of Representatives. The voting rights bill at the center of Thursday’s discussion will now go to the House for another vote.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.