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Voting In A Pandemic: Coronavirus Puts Election Process Front And Center

Susan Haigh
Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill oversees the state's elections. Concerned that coronavirus will dampen voter turnout, Merrill is pushing for mail-in ballots. A major sticking point, however, is the Connecticut Constitution.

New York and Connecticut have moved their presidential primary elections from this month to June in response to the coronavirus. But Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is concerned the virus will still be a problem in two months.

She says this is why the state needs to allow voting by mail. 

Merrill says the problem is that Connecticut’s Constitution has strict rules about absentee ballots.

“It’s spelled out in the state constitution. You can get an absentee ballot if you are out of the jurisdiction on the day of election or due to illness. And the problem is that’s not quite the situation here. There may be people who just don’t want to go because it’s a pandemic.”

She says that’s why she’s looking for a legal way to get around the provision.

“I don’t think any other state has it in their state constitution. And the problem with that is, it’s not easy to change.”

And she says it’s not something that can really be accomplished before the June presidential primary.

“It would have to be voted by the legislature, by a supermajority, before the general election in November. And then it has to go on the ballot, and everyone would have to approve it.”

Even if that were to happen, it would do nothing to change voting this year...though a similar measure has already passed.

“But not by the supermajority. Mostly the Democrats voted for it, almost all the Republicans voted against it. To have three days of early voting at least, which would have helped. I would say in this situation the rest of the country is going toward mail-in voting.”

Merrill is encouraging voters to request an absentee ballot even if they don’t think they will be out of town.

“Do get an absentee ballot if you think you need one. I think in this situation no one would question our need to have more flexibility, and I think voters need to think it through for themselves but definitely participate.”

University of Connecticut political scientist Ron Schurin says Merrill should expect some opposition to her plan.

“The arguments in normal times would go like this, if people vote early in a typical primary like now, people would have voted for say Elizabeth Warren before she withdrew from the race. By the time of the actual primary date, it would be a very different contest, and they would have essentially lost their vote.”

But he says in the present circumstance those arguments might be a bit muted. And mail-in voting seems to have worked in Oregon.

“There’s not been allegations of fraud, and there’s been a high voter participation rate.”

Larry Levy, a political scientist at Hofstra University, says New York has similar absentee ballot rules. And the COVID-19 pandemic might lead to a relaxing of some of them.

“You’ll see conversations, and I think you will also see action, to allow more and more voters to avoid having to go to the polls. That's not a new debate, but I think our experience in dealing with the virus is going to put this front and center.”

He says the presidential contest may be all but over by the time New Yorkers get to the polls in June.

“But the presidential campaign is not the only thing that matters.”

Levy says that’s because there are other primary races for state and local offices that will be decided on that day.

Connecticut’s primary is now scheduled for June 2. New York’s election is June 23. 

Read the latest on WSHU’s coronavirus coverage here.


Do you have questions you’d like WSHU to answer in local coverage of the coronavirus? Let us know via this survey.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
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