Sen. Dennis Bradley talks to Courtney Cullinan, the deputy chief of staff to the Senate Democrats, about his plans to challenge Sen. Mae Flexer, left, about the absentee voting bill. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

A bill that would allow out-of-town commuters and caretakers of the disabled or chronically ill to vote by absentee ballot won final legislative passage Wednesday on a 30-4 vote in the Senate.

The measure stops short of allowing no-excuse absentee voting, a step that would require passage of a referendum amending the Connecticut Constitution — something that cannot happen before the 2024 election.

Instead, it amends statutory language that is more restrictive than the standard set in the constitution, which disenfranchises voters in some circumstances. 

The constitution empowers the General Assembly to allow absentee voting by anyone “unable to appear at the polling place on the day of election because of absence from the city or town of which they are inhabitants or because of sickness, or physical disability or … the tenets of their religion.”

But state law is more restrictive, defining sickness as a voter’s illness and requiring commuters to be out of town for all hours of balloting, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Technically, that means a commuter from Stamford is ineligible to vote by absentee if they leave the city on a 6:01 a.m. train and don’t return by 8 p.m.

“This bill is simply about making it easier to vote,” said Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown.

Lying to get an absentee ballot is a felony, but chances of prosecution are minimal for anyone who gets one as a matter of convenience, as some commuters undoubtedly do now.

Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, challenged the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, over the meaning of several phrases, suggesting a lack of clarity that could invite challenges by the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

After defending the bill for hours against Republican questioning, Flexer was obviously annoyed at a new line of questioning by Bradley, a Democrat awaiting trial on federal charges arising from an elections enforcement investigation into whether he had legally qualified for a public financing grant for his campaign.

“The bill before us simply has to do with a voter’s eligibility to vote by absentee ballot,” she said.

Bradley said after the debate his questions about elections enforcement had nothing to do with his case.

“None of this is personal. It’s 100% not personal,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the allegations against me. This has to do with the honesty of the process. We have to make sure that we pass laws that actually make sense.”

Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, objected to broadening the meaning of sickness from a voter’s illness to one that is undefined.

“For the last 90 years, this has been the way we’ve bene doing it,” Sampson said.

The result, he said, is tantamount to no-excuse absentee voting.

Sampson offered seven amendments — some aimed at fraud, others that sharpened definitions in the bill — that failed on party-line votes.

Sampson said in an interview he would have voted for the bill had it included a reasonable definition of the circumstances under which sickness would be an excuse for absentee voting. Caring for a sick relative or fear of illness would have been acceptable to him, but he wanted the reasons enumerated, he said.

“Let’s do it, but let’s do it right,” he said.

Sampson and three other Republicans cast “no” votes Wednesday. The others were Sens. John Kissel of Enfield, Dan Champagne of Vernon and Henri Martin of Bristol.

Passage in the House came last week on a 126-16 vote, with every Democrat and a majority of Republicans in support.

A constitutional amendment that would allow early voting at the polls will be on the ballot in November.

A resolution authorizing a referendum on another proposed amendment allowing no-excuse absentee voting passed last year but fell short of the super majority necessary to place it on the 2022 ballot. If it is endorsed again by a simple majority of the 2023 legislature, it will go on the 2024 ballot.

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.