Democrats, GOP split on ballot reforms

After a partisan debate on ballot access, a divided state House of Representatives voted Wednesday for the second time in two years to place on the ballot a constitutional amendment potentially opening the door to early voting in Connecticut.

With the Senate set to endorse the same amendment, it will be up to voters to decide in November 2014 if the state constitution should be amended to give the General Assembly greater authority over election law.

Connecticut's constitution is unusually explicit on the question of how votes can be cast, limiting legislators' authority over reforms such as allowing the wider use of absentee ballots, voting by mail and early voting.

The resolution adopted Wednesday on a 90-to-49 party-line vote is merely another step on a multi-year journey to what Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy say they hope will be easier ballot access.

To place a question on the ballot, the legislature must approve the wording once by a super-majority or endorse the question by a simple majority twice in consecutive years.

The process began in 2012 with a simply-majority vote by the General Assembly to place the question on the ballot. Another majority vote this year would give voters a say in 2014, setting the stage for a legislative debate on new election laws in 2015.

"This resolution alone will not change any election laws," said Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, the co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee. "We are a long way from that."

But that did not stop a broader debate about the pros and cons of early voting, voting by mail and and even internet voting.

"I do believe this path is the wrong way to go," said Rep. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, the ranking House Republican on the elections committee.

Rep. Arthur J. O'Neill, R-Southbury, said the possibility of fraud in online voting was ample reason not to change the constitution, which now provides a protection against ill-considered reforms.

"This is a dangerous thing we are doing here today," O'Neill said.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said the GOP was willing to support a narrow constitutional amendment allow the "no-excuse" absentee voting, but not broader language.

House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said he is unsure what reforms are right for Connecticut.

"But I'd like to find out," he said.

Rep. Livvy Floren of Greenwich was the only Republican to vote for the resolution. No Democrat was opposed.

Merrill, who has pushed the change to combat diminishing voter turnouts, praised the vote.

"This historic vote by the House of Representatives puts Connecticut one major step closer to joining more than 30 other states that have some form of early voting," she said.

Nearly one-third of eligible voters are not registered, barely 30 percent of registered voters turned out in the 2011 municipal elections and only 57 percent voted in 2010, when Malloy won the closest gubernatorial election in a half-century.

In other states, questions of ballot access often have been intertwined with issues of race, economic status and partisan advantage.

A study issued in 2011by the New York University's Brennan Center for Justice found 14 states raising barriers to voting, sometimes in the name of security, by requiring types of voter identifications that one in 10 potential voters do not have.

Two states eliminated early voting, including Sunday voting heavily used by black churchgoers. At least 13 states either passed or debated legislation eliminating Election Day voter registration.
 

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