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Denise Merrill CTMIRROR.ORG FILE PHOTO

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said Monday that financial assistance is available to help municipalities plan to protect voters and poll workers from COVID-19 on election day, an important precaution in a state with some of the tightest absentee-ballot rules in the U.S.

In a video press conference, Merrill reiterated what she told local officials in a conference call a month ago: She intends to send every voter an absentee ballot application for the August primary and November general election. 

But most voters won’t be able to use them under current law.

In Connecticut, a voter can get an absentee ballot if they already have COVID-19 or some other sickness, but wanting to avoid illness during a pandemic is not among the six allowable reasons to vote by absentee.

The Connecticut Constitution empowers the General Assembly to set by law means to vote in cases of “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.”

Merrill said the constitution provides some wiggle room. In her view, there is nothing barring lawmakers from allowing voters to use the presence of a contagious sickness such as COVID-19 as reason for voting by absentee.

The legislature has interpreted “sickness” narrowly in state law by expressly permitting voters to get absentee ballots because of “his or her illness.” Merrill said lawmakers need only strike the words “his or her” from the absentee voting law.

Merrill said she was unaware of anyone ever being prosecuted for fibbing to get an absentee ballot by asserting they were going to be out of town.

“The truth is, no, we don’t have the absentee ballot police,” Merrill said.

Still, getting an absentee ballot requires a voter to sign a promise to use the ballot only if they are unable to appear at the polls for one of six reasons:

  •  “your active service in the U.S. Armed forces, 
  • “your absence from town during all the hours of voting, 
  • “your illness, 
  • “your physical disability, 
  • “your religion forbids secular activity on that day, 
  • your required performance of duties as a primary, referendum, or election official at a polling place other than your own during all the hours on that day.”

The application warns that violation is punishable by a $2,000 fine and one to five years in prison.

Whatever the legislature does, Merrill said she would use some of the $5.2 million federal grant for voter safety she recently received to mail every voter an absentee ballot application, complete with a self-addressed stamped envelope.

Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday at his daily COVID-19 briefing he favors a more expansive view of “sickness” for reasons of voting by absentee. He could change the law for the August primary under his emergency powers, but not for November. His emergency powers expire on Sept. 9, the end of the six-month public-emergency period he declared in March.

Republicans generally have been opposed to the broader use of absentee ballots, saying they see a danger of increased fraud. J.R. Romano, the state GOP chair, said he does not oppose the modest change sought by Merrill, but only if it comes with stricter rules of ensuring that voter rolls are up to date.

Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the Connecticut Citizen Action Group recently called on lawmakers to make the change sought by Merrill and favored by Lamont.

Lamont was joined at his briefing Monday by two physicians who serve in the legislature: Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, and Rep. William Petit, R-Plainville. Each supported the governor’s restrictions on commerce to slow the spread of the disease,  but they slightly differed on voting by absentee ballot.

Petit, a retired endocrinologist, said he hoped there would be no primary and would reserve judgment about the general election until it was clear if the pandemic still would be a danger in November. Anwar, a pulmonologist who has had to largely self-quarantine for six weeks, called the change a critical need “from a public health point of view.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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