The current health crisis – the worst since the flu pandemic that followed World War I more than a century ago – has negatively impacted almost every facet of our lives.  But the fight against COVID-19 also provides us with an opportunity to recognize the real heroes in our midst and to reconnect with the things in our lives that make them most worth living.

Oz Griebel 
Oz Griebel 

Our hospital and emergency medical workers, police and firefighters, National Guard, first responders, grocery workers, delivery people, transit operators, food service workers, teachers, journalists and others have all risen to the challenge to help others, often at great personal risk.

One thing we value most is our freedom to elect the representatives and leaders who work together on our behalf, especially in times such as these. In Connecticut, we can be grateful for the leadership of Gov. Ned Lamont and others as they have tackled the unprecedented medical, economic, employment and fiscal challenges of the pandemic.

Now we must all work together to protect our country’s most important and enduring asset: the engagement of “we the people” in determining who holds our elected offices.

Just as COVID-19 has affected our health, jobs and way of life, it also threatens our democracy by undermining our ability to vote.  To preserve that sacred right, we must ensure that all eligible Connecticut citizens can cast their votes easily, safely and securely — now and in the future, regardless of pandemics or other challenges.

That is why SAM-CT, part of SAM (Serve America Movement), supports Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s proposal to expand the use of absentee ballots by all voters in the Aug. 11 and Nov. 3 elections and her request that the governor issue the necessary executive orders for that expansion.

Secretary Merrill correctly emphasizes that the expansion is necessary so that individuals do not have to choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote. She recently issued a comprehensive plan to ensure safe, secure and accessible elections in 2020 that includes expanding absentee ballot access, but the availability of that expansion for all voters still requires an executive order or legislative action.

That is why my April 13 letter to Gov. Lamont strongly urges him to appoint a Voter Participation Commission immediately to review the issues and challenges of safety, fraud and security and to identify actions and protocols to ensure the integrity of expanded absentee ballot access for the Nov. 3 election rather than waiting to see if the pandemic discourages people from going to the polls.

Upon its establishment by the governor, the commission would hold public hearings, review the actions and protocols in place for the Aug. 11 primaries and specify any additional steps needed for the Nov. 3 election. The review would include an evaluation of the Secretary’s comprehensive plan and the state’s use of its $5.2 million share of the CARES Act funding for the 2020 Federal Election Cycle.

The essence of democracy is found in the voters and not in the candidates or the parties.

SAM-CT recommends that the governor appoint to the commission Merrill, legislative leaders, academics with election expertise, private sector representatives and individuals respected statewide for their experience and commitment to achieving common sense solutions to challenging issues.

The governor would also charge the commission to review the expanded use of absentee ballot access in the Nov. 3 election and to provide him, the Legislature and the public with a report by Dec. 31 that would guide the legislation, the infrastructure and any Constitutional amendment necessary to establish the vote-by-mail option for all future federal and state elections.

Those recommendations would also be based on the commission’s evaluation of the experiences of the five states that have already adopted the vote-by-mail option and detail the capital and operating costs and the timetable for the purchase, installation and ongoing maintenance of the equipment and systems needed for the vote-by-mail option.

Many things will be different when the scourge of COVID-19 is lifted and rebuilding an inclusive, modern civic and political infrastructure will be a critical component of constructive change. Election reform that strengthens voter participation and enhances candidate choice should be the cornerstone of that infrastructure, and the vote-by-mail option is an ideal place to start the effort.

The essence of democracy is found in the voters and not in the candidates or the parties — and nothing is more sacred and central to that essence than the ability of each of us to cast our ballots under any and all circumstances.

Oz Griebel, a former candidate for governor, chairs the SAM CT Task Force, a nonpartisan effort to enhance candidate competition and voter participation and choice via the establishment of open public primaries, ranked-choice voting, and term limits.

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