A bipartisan coalition is pushing for an elections reform package that includes a constitutional amendment to allow early voting by mail.
“We are not on the forefront of this,” Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill said while announcing the reform package with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers standing behind her. She said 35 states currently allow early voting by mail.
The package also includes provisions requiring local registrars to have an emergency plan in place if polling locations run out of ballots or long lines form and granting the secretary of the state the authority to require registrars order more ballots. The changes are aimed at preventing a repeat of the Election Day fiasco of 2010, when Bridgeport and a half dozen other communities ran out of ballots on Election Day, does not happen again.
The vote-by-mail proposal would require a constitutional amendment, Merrill said, because the constitution now allows absentee voting only for those who are ill, disabled, out of town on Election Day or barred by their religion from participating in secular activities.
Merrill’s proposal would have the General Assembly adopt the vote-by-mail amendment and put it before the voters in the November 2012 election.
Merrill, the state’s chief elections officer, said this “no excuse” absentee ballot initiative could someday mean there will be no need for Election Day.
“Oregon doesn’t have Election Day anymore. Their election is all mail in,” she said.
Currently about 10 percent of voters use absentee ballots. Merrill’s goal is to have half of all votes cast by mail, a chance that could eliminate long lines and polling locations running out of ballots and make it “easier and more convenient” to vote.
Rep. Anthony T. Hwang, the Republican ranking member of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said these initiatives could help guarantee that every vote counts.
“It is fundamental to the democratic process that we as a state provide a forum, provide a setting where elections are unquestioned, elections are transparent, honest and reflect the true intent of voters in our community,” said Hwang, R-Fairfield.
The Democratic chairs of the committee agree.
“This addresses what we all have said are some unacceptable situations,” said Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, D-Milford, calling the packages a “common-sense solution.”
But not everyone supports these initiatives; including the Connecticut Town Clerks Association, the State Elections Enforcement Commission, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Council of Small Towns.
In testimony submitted to the GAE committee, their concerns included the difficulty towns might have administering and paying for mail-in voting and the possibility that the integrity of the elections could be compromised.
“Due to a significant history of enforcement actions in the absentee ballot area, which lack the traditional controls of a polling place, the Commission opposes No-Excuse Absentee Voting,” reads the SEEC testimony.
“Our current system for processing absentee ballots could not handle the increase in volume under a no excuse system,” said Essie Labrot, the town clerk from West Hartford and vice chair of the CTCA. She said additional workers would need to be hired and unless the state plans to pay for them, this is an “unfunded mandate.”
When several towns ran out of ballots mid-day last election because they had not ordered enough ballots, chaos ensued the proponents of the election reform package said.
“I happen to love excitement, but that was an excitement I don’t want,” said Urania Petit, the election administer for Hartford where numerous polling locations ran out of ballots mid-day last November. “Horror should not be part of the elections process.”
To avoid towns running out of ballots, Merrill’s reform package would require towns report to her office 30 days prior to an election how many ballots they have ordered. If her office determines they need more ballots, Merrill’s office could require towns to order more. Towns that fail to report in time would be required to order one ballot for each registered voter.
Asked during an interview if this package is an unfunded mandate, Merrill said, “It’s a one-page report. I hope towns would not view needing enough ballots as a mandate.”
Following the Bridgeport fiasco, allegations were made that the cash-strapped city attempted to cut costs by ordering fewer ballots. Towns currently have to pay the cost of printing official ballots. Merrill has said she has been told that price tag can range anywhere from 30 cents to $1 a ballot.
In an effort to reduce those costs she is considering proposing that would allow towns to use the state’s purchasing power to order ballots at a cheaper rate by purchasing them in bulk.
“We will continue to try to get the cost down,” she said. “Cost savings is a concern but it’s not the only concern… This is not about state authority versus the towns, it’s not Republicans versus Democrats, this is about the most important function in our democracy.”
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