A voter casts an absentee ballot in a drop box in West Hartford in 2020's elections. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
A voter casts an absentee ballot in a drop box in West Hartford last year. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Statutory restrictions on absentee voting that can deny ballot access to Connecticut voters in some circumstances would be repealed under legislation passed Monday on a 117-28 vote by the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate.

Absentee ballots are unavailable to some voters with reasonable or even compelling excuses for not going to the polls: firefighters working 24-hour shifts, nurses anticipating overtime and parents home caring for sick or dying children.

“We know there are thousands of people throughout the state in every election — commuters, health care professionals, people who have to take care of a family member who is sick or disabled — who cannot make it physically to the polls and can also not qualify under our current statutes to obtain an absentee ballot,” said Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford.

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.”

Separate from an effort to amend the state Constitution to allow no-excuse absentee voting, the bill would remove additional limits imposed by state law: Absences must be during “all hours of voting” and sickness and disability are defined as those of the voter.

Rep. Dan Fox, D-Stamford, co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said the bill makes elections law comport with the Constitution and noted that the state Supreme Court already has taken a broader view of “sickness” by upholding the state’s temporary law allowing anyone to vote by absentee during the pandemic.

Republicans voted overwhelmingly on May 11 against a no-excuse constitutional amendment, blocking the supermajority necessary to place the measure on the ballot next year. But the bill Monday got significant GOP support after extensive questions about legislative intent.

“Nothing in this legislation is meant to expand or beyond the Constitution, is that right?” asked Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan.

“That’s correct,” Fox replied.

O’Dea voted for the bill, as did House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. Republicans split, with 23 in favor and 28 opposed. No Democrat was opposed.

The legislation does not resolve all situations in which voters cannot go to the polls but still cannot meet the remaining acceptable excuses.

One example are firefighters who work and vote in the same community. While 24-hour shifts are not uncommon in fire departments, if their shift falls on an Election Day, they are out of luck. Aside from election workers, the Constitution only recognizes job conflicts if the employment is out of town.

The same would be true of medical residents, who routinely work 14-hour days. If they live and work in the same town, there is no legal way to obtain an absentee ballot, even if the hours of work coincide with the hours of voting.

Republican efforts to amend the bill failed. One would have barred the Secretary of the State’s office from another unsolicited mass mailing of applications for absentee ballot, as the office did during the COVID-19 pandemic last year. There is no budget or plan for a similar mailing this fall.

Candelora said the unsolicited mailing, including applications addressed incorrectly, undermined voter confidence.

Applications for absentee ballots can be downloaded from the web, and Republican and Democratic town committees and candidates sometimes send them unsolicited to voters.

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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