As states across the country attempt to roll back voting rights and protections, Connecticut must lead the way in protecting the right to vote. But Connecticut has a lot of work to do – as the Center for Public Integrity recently observed, Connecticut has among the most restrictive voting laws outside of the south. Communities of color in Connecticut routinely face long lines and other obstacles when voting. It’s past time we correct these issues and ensure that voters of color, and indeed all voters, are free from voter suppression and intimidation, and have a fair and equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
Recently, the Connecticut legislature held a public hearing on the Connecticut Voting Rights Act (Senate Bill 820 or the CTVRA), introduced by State Sen. Matt Lesser, which, if enacted, would make Connecticut a national leader in protecting the right to vote for communities of color, and indeed all voters. We heard from many civil rights leaders, voters, and advocates on just how important the CTVRA will be when it comes to rooting out racial discrimination in voting, by enshrining into law protections against voter suppression and vote dilution, expanding language assistance requirements, and taking strong action against voter intimidation. Connecticut should build on the success of other states that have enacted state voting rights acts, such as California, Washington, Oregon, and —just recently—Virginia, and emulate current efforts to pass a similar bill in New York, by enacting the CTVRA.
But the CTVRA is just the start. Right now, there are thousands of Connecticut residents who are completely barred from exercising their voting rights. That’s because Connecticut is the only state in the northeast that strips people on parole of their right to vote. People of color make up about a third of Connecticut’s population, while representing an astonishing 72% of our incarcerated population. Put simply, those on parole are back in their communities and deserve to have a voice in them. Senate Bill 5 would address this grave injustice, while also registering hundreds of thousands of new voters by implementing automatic voter registration.
While these bills are all critical first steps, there is more work to be done. It’s time to finally bring Connecticut in line with the 29 states across the country that offer no-excuse absentee ballot voting and the 44 states that allow early voting. We can accomplish that this session by passing H.J. 58 and H.J. 59 – constitutional amendments that will allow the voters to decide on bringing no-excuse absentee ballot voting and early voting to Connecticut.
These are common sense reforms that are proven to increase participation and voter access. No Connecticut resident should have to worry about taking time off from work, missing family obligations, or standing in hours-long lines to exercise one of their most fundamental rights. To force residents to make that choice is an act of disenfranchisement in itself. This past year, Connecticut temporarily expanded absentee ballot voting, and the results speak for themselves. Connecticut held its smoothest election in years, with near-record voter participation despite a global pandemic. But if Connecticut fails to make these temporary reforms permanent this session, voters will lose these rights once again.
As 28 states across the country work to restrict voter access at this very moment, Connecticut is facing a choice: do we move voting rights and racial justice forward, or do we fail to take action and turn back the clock?
Momentum is in our favor, and these efforts in Connecticut come amid a national conversation on voting rights and the need to restore preclearance provision to the Voting Rights Act, to protect against state voter suppression laws that have a negative effect on voting access for racial minorities, as well as the need to provide opportunities for expanded voter registration, early voting, and absentee voting as set forth in H.R. 1, the For the People Act, and H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The latest polling shows that Connecticut voters across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support increasing voter access – with 79% of voters in favor of early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, 77% in support of Automatic Voter Registration, and 66% in favor of restoring voting rights for people on parole, including majorities of both Democrats and Republicans.
Voter disenfranchisement will always be a painful part of our history, but Connecticut has an opportunity this legislative session to ensure that it will no longer be a part of our future.