The framers of our constitution created a demanding system of government: one that asks citizens to observe and judge our rulers, and make a choice of who shall wield power every two years. It is a duty that must not be taken lightly, as it remains the foundation of accountability in our democracy. Ensuring that the process is open, fair, and accessible should be the core principle of our institutions.
Unfortunately, the right to vote sits on rickety foundations in our state. Connecticut remains one the few places in the country that combines no advance voting, severe barriers to absentee ballots, and outdated practices on voter registration to create a restrictive voting system. This makes our democracy quite flawed on a good day, but faced with a pandemic and the associated public health emergency, our electoral laws are at the risk of a severe breakdown unless Gov. Ned Lamont and the General Assembly take action.
Wisconsin held its presidential primaries three months ago. The coronavirus outbreak was well underway in the state, and many feared the worst. Republicans, however, blocked any attempts to shift the election to mail-only, seeking partisan advantage on a state Supreme Court election the same date. Although the plot backfired and the conservative candidate lost, thousands of Wisconsinites had to risk their health to vote. A month later, researchers have measured the toll: counties with more in-person voters have significantly higher rates of COVID-19 transmission than places that voted mostly by mail. On average, an additional 100 people per polling station doubled the positive case test rate of that county two to three weeks after the vote.
In other words: an election became a public health hazard.
We do not know what will be the coronavirus landscape later this year. What should be clear for everyone, however, is that with the possibility of mass contagion still present, these kinds of risks are wholly unacceptable. Connecticut’s current absentee ballot rules are much more restrictive than Wisconsin; the same election here would have been far more dangerous. Democracy is demanding enough without asking voters to put their health at risk.
Fortunately, there is a proven, reliable way to conduct elections in a safe, secure, and fully democratic manner: an all-mail mail election. As of today, five states (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah) hold their elections entirely by mail; 21 others have laws that allow certain contests (such school board elections) to take place by mail.
In all-mail elections, every single registered voter vote receives its ballot in the mail as well as a pre-paid envelope to send it back in. A privacy slip guarantees anonymous voting; a signed affidavit validates the vote. Those that prefer to go to the polls on election day are free to do so. In all-mail elections, whoever, no one has to leave work early to vote, or risk contagion during a deadly pandemic. No fear, no rush to the polls, no lines – you vote and chill from home.
Gov. Ned Lamont took the steps to allow no-excuse absentee ballots to all voters on the August 11t primaries — a step in the right direction. This special session it is imperative that the General Assembly expands this arrangement through November by passing LCO 3576, ensuring that every single registered voter an absentee ballot form, no questions asked, for the general election.
Some critics, including the President, have raised the specter of widespread voter fraud in all-mail elections. In our state, the colorful experience of some cities (read: Bridgeport) with absentee votes in tight elections is called a warning of what could happen if we go all-mail.
These assertions, however, are deeply misguided. There is virtually no evidence of voter fraud among any of the states currently using all-mail voting; votes are tied to voter registration data, and the U.S. Postal Service has a long track record keeping correspondence private and secure. Questionable absentee ballots in places like Bridgeport rely on campaigns and poll workers actively coercing populations to vote absentee; these tactics become moot once every single registered voter receives a ballot at home, ready to go, with no paperwork involved.
We don´t know how the pandemic will be by November. Even in the unlikely event that the virus is fully contained by election day, making the act of voting easier and more convenient should be a priority.
Sarah Ganong is the Political Director of the Working Families Party of Connecticut.