Secretary of the State candidates Stephanie Thomas (D) and Dominic Rapini (R) debate Tuesday, October 18, 2022, at the University of Hartford's Lincoln Theater in West Hartford. Mark Mirko / CT Public

The two leading candidates vying to become Connecticut’s next Secretary of the State, Democrat Stephanie Thomas and Republican Dominic Rapini, met Tuesday night to debate how the state operates its elections and how voters can access the ballot.

The meeting offered a clear picture of the differences between the two campaigns and their beliefs on early voting, absentee ballots, voter identification laws and the size and scope of voter fraud in Connecticut.

The two candidates agreed on a few issues, such as the need to update the technology that the state uses to manage its elections and to provide support and training to local election officials in municipalities.

But there was little overlap beyond those points.

Many of the differences between the two candidates came down to how they view the current election systems and the role of the Secretary of the State.

Republican Secretary of the State candidate Dominic Rapini makes his closing remarks during a debate with Democrat Stephanie Thomas at the University of Hartford’s Lincoln Theater Tuesday, October 18, 2022. Mark Mirko / CT Public

Rapini’s primary objective is “election integrity,” he said. And he repeatedly argued during the debate that there was a “culture of fraud” in Connecticut elections, singling out Connecticut cities such as Bridgeport.

Meanwhile, Thomas said she views the duties of the statewide office as expanding voting accessibility and ensuring that no policy depresses voter participation.

The clearest example of those competing world views came during exchange over the issue of voter fraud and how prevalent it is in Connecticut.

Rapini, who previously served as the chairman of a group called Fight Voter Fraud Inc., pointed to a recent conviction of a local Democratic chairman in Stamford, who was found guilty of signing and submitting absentee ballot applications for people without their knowledge.

That case was held up by Rapini as an example of the “culture of fraud” that he continued to cite.

Secretary of the State candidate Democrat Stephanie Thomas makes her closing remarks during a debate with Republican Dominic Rapini at the University of Hartford’s Lincoln Theater Tuesday, October 18, 2022. Mark Mirko / CT Public

In response, Thomas recognized the case, but she criticized Rapini for using those types of cases to argue that the larger election system is rigged.

She accused Rapini of “taking a germ of truth and stretching it to create harm and a loss of faith” in the entire election system.

The cases of voter fraud, Thomas added, are a small subset of the millions of votes that are cast in state elections.

Thomas, a Norwalk resident who serves in the state legislature, said she would rather focus her attention on driving up the state’s voter turnout numbers.

As part of that, she announced her support for an upcoming ballot referendum, which would give the General Assembly the ability to add in-person early voting in upcoming elections.

And she said she would be ready to introduce the required legislation in January, if voters pass the referendum this November.

“I’m a big fan of early voting,” Thomas said.

Rapini, on the other hand, labeled the upcoming referendum for early voting a “blank check” — something that other Republican lawmakers also claimed this year as they sought to prevent the referendum from making it onto this year’s general election ballot.

As he has in the past, Rapini continued to argue that allowing early in-person voting in Connecticut would become an “unfunded mandate” on town clerks and registrars of voters, who run the local election systems.

“I do not think early voting is right for Connecticut,” Rapini said.

“This is not where I want to put our money,” he added.

Thomas, for her part, recognized there was a cost to Connecticut joining at least 46 other states in adopting early in-person voting, but she argued the money and time needed to implement those systems were worth it in order to make it easier for people to cast a ballot.

The candidates also held opposite views on whether the state needs a new voter identification law.

Rapini has made a strict voter identification law a central pillar of his campaign.

“Voter ID, and particularly government ID, is fundamental to our democracy,” Rapini said as he kicked off the debate. “It’s fundamental to a functioning society. I think the thought of us not having voter ID is ludicrous.”

“I don’t know why it isn’t a no brainer,” he added.

Currently, election workers in Connecticut ask people to present a driver’s license or other form of identification when they show up to the polls. But state law also allows for people without such identification to sign an affidavit instead.

Thomas said she believes that the current law works, and she argued that mandating a tight government identification requirement was a “solution in search of a problem.”

Andrew joined CT Mirror as an investigative reporter in July 2021. Prior to moving to Connecticut, Andrew was a reporter at newspapers in North Dakota, West Virginia and most recently South Carolina. He’s covered business, utilities, environmental issues, the opioid crisis, local government and two state legislatures. Do you have a story tip? Reach Andrew at 843-592-9958