There is much discussion right now about making it easier for Connecticut residents to vote; proposals center around no-excuse absentee voting and early voting in particular. But perhaps just as important is making sure that voters have real choices come Election Day. Connecticut has some of the most arcane ballot access laws in the country, as I found out when I ran for state Senate this past cycle.

In order to qualify for the primary ballot in Connecticut, a candidate must either gain at least 15 percent of the party convention delegates or, failing that, go the arduous petition route. For the latter, candidates for statewide office and Congress are required to get the signatures of two percent of party registered voters in their constituency.

Uniquely for state legislative candidates, this stipulation rises to five percent. What makes this a nearly impossible obstacle is that legislative candidates are boxed into an arbitrary two-week window in late May and early June to gather all these signatures.

In my district, I needed the signatures of 1,014 registered Democrats. My volunteers and I spent two grueling weeks crisscrossing Branford, Guilford, Madison, North Branford, Killingworth and Durham, in the baking sun and pouring rain. Given the tight time frame, a single thunderstorm nearly sabotaged the entire effort. The vast majority of people we spoke to were willing to sign; it wasn’t necessarily a statement of support, but an acknowledgement that democracy requires real choices and a fair hearing.

We came excruciatingly close. While we turned in 1,120 signatures, some were inevitably discounted as incorrectly registered or illegible. In one extraordinary case, a woman had passed away between the time she signed and the time the petition was handed in, and her signature was sadly tossed out. By the registrars’ count of validated signatures, we were 32 short. By our campaign’s internal count, we were only nine shy.

With the number of valid signatures I had, I could have run for governor of Ohio, to be a member of Congress from Pennsylvania or for U.S. senator from Oregon, among many other distinguished offices. Most states simply allow candidates to pay a modest filing fee to secure a spot on the primary ballot or collect a token number of signatures within a much more reasonable time frame.

Connecticut’s ballot access laws drastically tilt the playing field toward party insiders and those with great wealth. For instance, self-funding candidates can hire an army of paid canvassers to gather signatures and be assured ballot access. I certainly didn’t have that luxury. Indeed, raising money itself becomes difficult when having to petition; understandably, many potential supporters hold off on donating until ballot access is assured. Even if one did qualify for the primary ballot after petitioning, the party convention candidate will have had a month’s lead time to raise money and qualify for Citizens’ Election Program grants.

So what would a better system look like? Ideally, the antiquated conventions themselves would be abolished and all candidates – incumbent or challenger, establishment favorite or grassroots star – would be required to secure a small number of signatures. Even less radical change, though, could greatly aid the democratic process. Simply expanding the petition time frame from 14 days to a month or two would make it much more realistic to qualify. And even though 17-year-olds who turn 18 by the general election are eligible to vote in the primary, they are irrationally barred from signing or circulating petitions; this should be changed.

Simplifying the cumbersome and confusing verification procedure for circulators would be another common sense reform. A number of eligible voters couldn’t sign because they were away from the district during the petition period; some method of absentee signing would only be fair as well.

Critics of gerrymandering are fond of saying that politicians shouldn’t get to choose their voters. By that same token, politicians shouldn’t get to choose the candidates either. This session, the General Assembly should open up the process and at long last return power to the voters.

Andy Gottlieb is a Democrat from Guilford and former candidate for state Senate in the 12th District.

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