House Democrats and Republicans clashed in dueling press conferences Thursday about whether expanding absentee voting would lead to fraud, then they largely united behind another ballot access issue: endorsing a constitutional amendment allowing in-person early voting.
The House voted 115-26 to place the constitutional amendment before the voters next year. If passed at referendum in 2022, it will allow the General Assembly to decide in 2023 whether to offer early voting, as is available in 44 other states.
“We’re not deciding anything today. That’s ironic,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, noting the resolution before the House only allowed a referendum. “All we’re doing is letting the voters of Connecticut decide.”
If the voters approve the referendum question, it would be up to lawmakers to pass legislation outlining the duration and rules for early voting.
As a result, Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, the co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, opened the debate with an unusual admonition: Don’t bother asking him detailed questions about how early voting would work.
“I do not have those answers today,” Fox said.
Early voting was a bipartisan issue in 2019, when a super-majority of 75% of the House backed placing an identical amendment on the ballot. If a super-majority had endorsed it in the Senate, the question would have been on the 2020 ballot.
The Senate approved the measure but fell just short of a super-majority in 2019. That meant a successive legislature, the one elected in 2020, would have to approve the language by a simple majority. Passage in the Senate is assured.
On Thursday, 22 of the 48 House Republicans present joined 93 Democrats in supporting the measure. No Democrat was opposed. There were 10 absences, 6 Republicans and 4 Democrats.
The press conference before the session previewed what is certain to be a sharply partisan debate next week over whether to ease access to absentee ballots, an issue that poses a political Rorschach test.
Democrats say they see only easier ballot access for voters. Republicans see the potential for fraud.
“Has there been fraud in elections? Yes, there has,” Ritter said. “People have been arrested and prosecuted, but it is so rare. It is such an unlikely crime, that we should enfranchise the 99.9999% of good actors in our state and not punish everybody else.”
Ritter spoke outside the Capitol, surrounded by colleagues and members of groups supporting the change, including the NAACP, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the Connecticut Citizen Action Group.
“At a time when too many states are making it harder to vote, Connecticut has a chance to be a leader in expanding the right to vote and making our democracy accessible to all citizens,” said Corrie Betts of the NAACP.
Hours later, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that raises hurdles to voting by mail, such as restricting the use of drop boxes like the ones used in Connecticut last year. A coalition including the League of Women Voters immediately filed a court challenge, complaining the restrictions fell most heavily on minorities and the elderly.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, has rejected Donald J. Trump’s baseless claims that widespread voter fraud contributed to Joe Biden’s victory last year, but he said small-scale fraud is real and should be addressed, if only to restore voter confidence.
“Time and again, I hear from people: ‘Do you think the elections are valid? Do you think the vote was stolen?’ That is not a conversation that should ever occur in the United States of America,” Candelora said. “And so that is why we are putting a focus on trying to put the safeguards in place — so that we can say to people, ‘No, we have these protections in place. Elections are not stolen.’”
Asked if he believed Trump bears some responsibility for those concerns, he replied, “Oh, absolutely, I think the former president contributed to that. But certainly the reality is that we also have foreign infiltration in our elections.”
Candelora voted for the early voting measure, but he is ready to fight the expansion of absentee voting.
The Senate voted along party lines early Thursday to pass and send to the House legislation that would allow anyone concerned about contracting COVID-19 to vote by absentee ballot this year, the same option made available in last year’s elections.
Democrats rejected a GOP amendment that would have required photo identification to vote, but they accepted one that creates a pilot program in which five communities would use signature verification to authenticate the identities of voters using absentee ballots.
“I’m not particularly in favor of it as a way of increasing whatever checks we have — we already have many, many checks and balances in our system,” said Secretary of the State Denise Merrill. “And so this would just be, I think, more trouble than it was worth, quite frankly, but we’ll take a look at it if that’s what’s required.”
Ritter said signature matching is a dubious method of authenticating identification, given that signatures change over time. The ACLU filed suit challenging Ohio’s signature-matching law after discovering ballots cast by legitimate voters had been discarded over the quality of signatures on the outer envelopes of absentee ballots.
The Atlantic reported that an expert witness in the Ohio case found that the vast majority of ballots rejected over signatures had been cast legitimately.
House Democrats intend to vote next week on a constitutional amendment easing restrictions on absentee voting.
The Connecticut Constitution empowers the General Assembly to allow absentee ballot voting 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.”
They also intend to pass a bill that would allow caretakers of disabled persons and commuters who work outside their hometowns to vote by absentee, which Democrats say would not run afoul of the constitution. State law, however, bars the use of absentee ballots for commuters unless they will be out of town during all hours of voting. It only allows absentee voting by people who are sick or disabled, not those who care for them.