A debate over ballot access in Connecticut

In an age when merchants and libraries are accessible on smart phones, how easy should it be to vote? Should officials treat the electorate as valued customers, or should voters view elections as a civic duty, regardless of convenience?

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill's new push to modernize the machinery of elections and boost voter turnout ran into those questions Friday, as some politicians struggled with her view of voters as consumers to be served.

"We need to make the process easier for voters in Connecticut," said Merrill, who took office a year ago. "They are our consumers."

With the significant political backing of the governor, Merrill is pushing election-day registration for new voters and a study of more sweeping changes, such as the early voting allowed in person or by "no-excuse" absentee ballot in other states.

Before a public hearing on election reforms, Merrill presented an "Election Performance Report," a dismal report card on voting in Connecticut produced after a non-partisan, months-long study.

The study, as well as a related plan to assemble a "Connecticut Democracy Index" measuring how well elections are run, is Merrill's major effort to put her stamp on election law after succeeding Susan Bysiewicz as secretary of the state.

"It's long past time that we move our elections into the 21st century in Connecticut," Merrill said. "We are not on the cutting edge. And our system is old costly and inconvenient."

Sen. Gayle Slossberg of Milford and Rep. Rusell Morin of Wethersfield, the Democratic co-chairs of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said the effort is long overdue.

Connecticut is one of the worst states in the nation as far as collecting data on elections, according to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which ranked the states on information collected and reported.

The state ranked 45th, but Heather K. Gerken, a Yale law professor and the author of the book, "The Democracy Index," says most states do "a relentlessly terrible job."

Gerken was a member of the Election Performance Task Force and she is working with Merrill to develop a "democracy index" for the state. It would measure factors such as rates for voter registration and turnout to how long it takes to register or cast a ballot.

The Malloy administration demonstrated its support for Merrill's initiative by sending Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman to testify with Merrill in support of the changes, not all of which are new.

The General Assembly passed election-day registration in 2003, but it was vetoed by Gov. John G. Rowland, who cited concerns over fraud, the issue that hangs over many efforts to ease access to the ballot.

Merrill said the state now has a reliable statewide voter data base that allows local officials to quickly check if a new voters is registered elsewhere in the state.

Bilal Sekou, a University of Hartford political science professor and president of Common Cause, is a task force member who calls electoral fraud the 800-pound gorilla that looms whenever changes to the voting system are discussed.

Despite the backing of electoral changes by non-partisan groups such as the League of Women Voters, the issue inevitably opens a fissure dividing Democrats in favor of easier access and Republicans opposed.

Without naming names, Sekou said since President Obama's election in 2008 there has been a "comprehensive and coordinated assault on the right to vote. What they are really attempting to do is legislative voter suppression."

Merrill tacked away from such rhetoric, but her report forcefully rebutted allegations by some national Republicans that voter fraud is endemic.

Citing a research by the Brennan Center for Justice, the report said voter fraud occurs, but it rare: "The frequency is so microscopic - between .0009 percent and .00004 percent - that Americans are struck and killed by lightning about as often."

Rep. Livvy R. Floren, R-Greenwich, a long-time member of the committee, said the specter of fraud "has had a chilling effect" on reform efforts.

"The secretary of the state has pointed to important evidence. She has done the research," said Floren, a supporter of election-day registration. "I think we can put the 'chilling effect' to bed."

But former Republican State Chairman Chris Healy questioned why the legislature was so concerned with allowing last-minute voter registration. Under current law, he said, it takes minimal planning.

"You can get up off the couch," he said. "Who are all the people who are disenfranchised?"

Rep. David Labriola, the brother of the current GOP state chairman, said, "It is such an insignificant burden."

The two Republicans contrasted complaints about the burdens of voting in the U.S. with risks voters in other countries face every time they cast a vote.

"There are actually people who vote under the hail of gunfire," Healy said.

Morin said the reaction from registrars of voters about election-day registration was mixed, but he predicted it will be approved by the committee on a largely partisan vote.

Any changes to the use of absentee ballots is far off. The first step must be to approve a referendum question on a constitutional amendment.

Under the state constitution, the General Assembly cannot regulate how absentee ballots are used.

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