Amendment to open election rules advances, but won’t reach the ballot this fall

Minority Republicans couldn't prevent the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives from advancing a proposal making it far easier to dramatically revise longstanding state voting rules.

But the GOP, which voted overwhelmingly against the proposed amendment to the state Constitution, ensured Wednesday that the earliest it could take effect would be the 2016 election season.

That's because the rules governing amendments normally require proposals to be adopted in two successive legislative sessions before they can go on the ballot. That two-year rule can be waived if both chambers endorse an amendment by a three-fourths' vote the first time they consider it.

And because the House voted 97-50 in favor Wednesday -- 17 votes shy of the margin needed to reach three-fourths of the 151-member chamber -- the proposal cannot go on the November ballot. If approved in the Senate later this year, it will return for a second round of legislative consideration when the 2013 session convenes in January.

The earliest it could go before voters after that would be the 2014 state elections. If approved then, it would take effect in the 2016 races.

Had the proposal -- which is expected to enhance voter turnout -- advanced to this fall's ballot under the accelerated process, it could have been in effect for the 2014 gubernatorial contest.

And Republicans said privately that given the longstanding Democrats' edge in voter registration, it was better to push any changes off as far into the future as possible. Democratic voters statewide top 734,000, and exceed Republicans by nearly 320,000 voters.

"This has never been a partisan issue, and it shouldn't be treated as such," Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill, Connecticut's chief elections official, said after Wednesday's House vote. "It would allow us to expand voter access to the ballot, and that's something we should do whenever we have the opportunity."

Merrill, a Democrat, said Connecticut's Constitution imposes far greater limits on Election Day rules than those of most other states. "We have very restrictive language in our Constitution, and this amendment recognizes modern realities, that life has changed."

Though the amendment's title refers to "no excuse absentee voting," or allowing voters to obtain and submit a ballot in advance of Election Day without having to give any reason for doing so, the proposal would open the door for much broader changes, both advocates and opponents said.

For example, Merrill noted, 27 other states currently open their polls anywhere from three to 14 days to allow voters to cast regular ballots, not just on one specific "Election Day."

Connecticut also holds elections only on Tuesdays and does not allow online voting. These longstanding rules also could be modified if the Constitution is changed.

Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said Democrats have no preconceived plan on how to overhaul voting rules.

"It allows us to take the concept out of the Constitution and put it in the hands of the legislature," he said. "We're not changing anything. We're giving the voters the opportunity to decide how they want us to conduct elections."

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who last year became Connecticut's first Democratic governor in two decades, announced his support for a constitutional amendment in January alongside Merrill.

"While some states are suppressing voter turnout, we are moving in the opposite direction and working to improve access to elections and align our electoral system with 21st century technology," Malloy said at the time. "Voting is a great responsibility, and an enormous opportunity, and ... we have an obligation to make every effort to preserve citizens' access to the polls."

But Republican representatives argued that Connecticut's rules governing elections have remained fairly constant for nearly 200 years for a reason.

"I'm fairly confident I was elected by the people of my district to uphold and defend the Constitution, not to change it," said Rep. Robert Sampson, R-Wolcott.

"Through this (amendment) we will have virtually moved the line on Election Day," said Rep. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield.