Rep. Dan Fox, right, D-Stamford, waits for his turn to speak during the special session on Thursday. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

An overwhelmingly bipartisan vote Thursday in support of no-excuse absentee ballot voting in November as a COVID-19 precaution blurred continuing partisan differences over permanently loosening Connecticut’s tight limits on absentee voting.

The state House of Representatives voted 144-2 to temporarily redefine the definition of “sickness” in state voting law to cover the COVID-19 pandemic, giving every voter the ability to vote by absentee.

“I understand people are concerned. I don’t blame them for not wanting to go to a polling place,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.

But Klarides said Republican support came only after Democrats agreed to sunset the provision after the election in November, leaving a debate over permanent changes for another day, most likely after the 2021 session opens in January.

Republicans said they remain wary about nudging a significant segment of the electorate towards what will be a mix of early voting and voting by mail. Voters will be able to cast their absentee ballots by mail or at locked drop-in boxes outside municipal offices.

“I don’t think it’s going to work so well,” said Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, who is expected to succeed Klarides as minority leader in January. “Because of the pandemic, we’re willing to try it. But we need to examine it next session to see how to do it better.”

The measure largely mirrors an executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont that allows no-excuse absentee ballot voting in the Aug. 11 primary. With the public health emergency expiring in September, he had no authority to issue a similar order for the fall.

“I don’t know of anything that surpasses, in my mind, how important it is to be allowed to vote in this country,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford.

Democrats are ready to make permanent changes liberalizing the use of absentee ballots as a means to vote early or vote by mail, which would require amending the Connecticut Constitution.

“That time is coming to amend the Constitution,” Ritter said.

The Connecticut Constitution says the General Assembly may provide by law the means to vote only 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.” 

The legislature voted last year to place a constitutional amendment allowing early voting on the ballot, but unanimous Republican opposition in the Senate blocked the super-majority necessary to immediately place the measure before the voters.

Without a three-quarters majority in each chamber, the amendment must be passed by two successive legislatures. If the legislature passes it again next year, the question would go on the ballot in 2022.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s decision to mail absentee ballot applications to every voter eligible to vote in the August primary was an issue Thursday. Republicans tried and failed to add an amendment barring another statewide mailing for November.

They also failed to delete language that codified in state law the governor’s executive order regarding the August primary, a provision intended to thwart legal challenges. One such challenge already has been dismissed.

The bill clarifies the rights of voters who use the state’s election day registration law to cast a ballot if they were in line to register by 8 p.m. It would allow municipalities, who now do election-day registrations at city or town halls, to offer a second location.

The only legislators voting against passage of the bill were Reps. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato and Whit Betts, both Republicans who represent Bristol.

Pavalock-D’Amato said she did not believe that statutory change would be appropriate without a constitutional amendment. Betts had broader objections, including his local registrar’s concerns that local officials lacked sufficient resources to count so many absentee ballots in a timely manner.

“I really agree with her assessment that we could very well be a national embarrassment,” Betts said. 

The limited August primary will be a test. 

There is a presidential primary in both parties, even though President Donald J. Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have clinched their respective nominations. Republicans also have congressional primaries in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts, and both parties have a handful of state legislative primaries.

Trump voted by absentee ballot, but he has repeatedly suggested that such voting is an invitation to fraud.

The Senate is scheduled to take up the bill Tuesday.

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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