It began as an effort to allow Civil War soldiers who were far from home to cast ballots in state and local elections, but that provision in Connecticut’s constitution has also kept voters from enjoying the right to cast an early ballot shared by voters in 34 other states.
Connecticut voters will now decide whether to allow the state legislature to amend the state’s restrictions on absentee or early voting.
The question on the ballot next Tuesday is: “Shall the Constitution of the State be amended to remove restrictions concerning absentee ballots and to permit a person to vote without appearing at a polling place on the day of an election?”
Whether voters will support the amendment is unclear, as is the kind of change it would lead to.
One thing is certain, however. Although the debate over the voting amendment has been overshadowed by the governor’s race and other competitive political contests, it splits along party lines like those races.
Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, is urging voters to support the measure. Republican rival Tom Foley hopes people vote “no.”
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, who with Malloy pressed the legislature to approve legislation that allows the amendment, plans to post an explanation of the issue at every polling place.
The state Constitution now says voting is limited to “the day of the election” and absentee ballots can be used only under strict conditions. Those conditions are “an absence from the city or town of which they are inhabitants or because of sickness or physical disability or because the tenets of their religion forbid secular activity” when a religious holiday falls on Election Day.
Language to allow absentee ballots was put in the constitution to enfranchise Connecticut’s Civil War soldiers, then amended later in the 19th century to what it says today, said Av Harris, spokesman for the Secretary of the State’s office.
He said attempts to change the constitution so that it’s less restrictive were tried before, “but they died in the legislature.”
Harris says a “yes” vote on the amendment is a good idea.
“Across the country [early voting] is pretty popular, people want more options to vote,” he said.
Yet Republicans like Foley say the constitution’s provision on absentee voting, and state laws that implement them, are perfectly adequate.
Historically, early voting has largely favored the Democrats. They have pushed “no excuse” absentee ballots — which means anyone who wants one is entitled to one – in dozens of states. They have also promoted early voting, saying it and no-excuse absentee ballots are needed so lower-income voters and the elderly, who may face obstacles getting to a polling place on Election Day, can fully participate in the political process.
That’s an argument Democrats are now making in Connecticut.
Brendan Sharkey, the Democratic Speaker of Connecticut’s House of Representatives, said the state constitution has a “very narrow definition of why it is and how you can vote.”
“It’s very restrictive,” he said.
Sharkey championed the bill that resulted in the amendment on the ballot. But getting it through the state legislature wasn’t easy, he said.
Unless the legislation received a super majority, or 75 percent of the vote, it had to be approved by simple majorities twice in the state House and Senate within a session of the General Assembly.
While he supports amending the constitution, Sharkey said he hasn’t decided how to draft legislation to implement changes if voters allow him to do that.
He said he would study the voting policies of other states before making up his mind.
Early voting laws in other states vary. Some states, including Florida, Texas and Maryland, and the District of Columbia, open certain polling places days or weeks before Election Day. Others only allow early voting by mail.
A constitutional amendment, but no initiatives
In Connecticut, towns can place referendums and initiatives on the ballot, but not the state. So the appearance of the constitutional amendment on the ballot among the choices for state and federal political offices is a rarity.
Not so almost everywhere else. Across the country, 146 state-wide ballot propositions go before voters on Nov. 4.
In Maine, one proposal on the ballot this year would limit bear hunting. In Rhode Island, voters will decide whether to expand gambling. In Massachusetts voters will decide whether to outlaw betting on greyhound races and whether to require employers to provide at least 40 hours of sick leave to each employee.
The Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California says some ballot initiatives will drive turnout in a way that could influence tight races, such as the contests for U.S. Senate in Alaska and Colorado.
In Alaska, there are initiatives that would appeal to progressive voters, including one that would legalize marijuana and another that will raise the minimum wage. Those could help the Democrat in the race, Sen. Mark Begich, fend off his Republican rival, Dan Sullivan.
In Colorado, where Republican Rep. Cory Gardner has challenged Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, several high-profile propositions promoted by conservative groups are on the ballot, including one that would define “personhood’ in such a way to ban abortions in the state.
There’s no evidence Connecticut’s constitutional amendment would impact voter turnout in this election, even though it fosters a partisan split.
A group called “Vote Yes” that includes Common Cause Connecticut, the NAACP and Connecticut Citizen Action Group is urging voters to approve the resolution, as are some union activists.
Merrill has issued press releases and public service announcements about the constitutional amendment, even as her office forbids her to tell voters how to cast their ballots.
Yet Sharkey said he is concerned “it isn’t drawing the attention of voters like it should.”
State Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, a Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation that put the proposal on the ballot, said he could not predict the outcome of the vote on the measure.
Aresimowicz said he “thinks voters are generally supportive of it,” but also said “I think there is some apprehension about how it would affect voting policy in the state.”