Community organizers and elected officials are making another push for a state law that would expand language assistance for voters with limited English proficiency, establish protections against voter intimidation and make it more difficult for local officials to discriminate against people at the ballot box.
Members of the ACLU Connecticut, the LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the Hispanic Federation joined Democratic lawmakers and Secretary of State Stephanie Thomas in Hartford on Tuesday to reaffirm their support for the legislation, which proponents have dubbed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of Connecticut.
A previous effort to pass the legislation stalled during the 2022 legislative session.
Building on protections established in the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, advocates said the bill — which lawmakers plan to file in the current legislative session — would require municipalities to provide language-related assistance to voters if their population comprises a certain percentage of people who speak English “less than very well.”
It would also prohibit acts of intimidation that might prevent a voter from casting a ballot and create a program to require localities with a record of discrimination to gain the state’s approval before changing election-related policies.
Additionally, the legislation would allow people to sue against acts of voter intimidation, deception and obstruction. And it would produce a statewide database with elections and demographic information to aid in oversight of the voting process.
If passed, Connecticut would join New York and a handful of other states that have implemented a state-level voting rights act.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that when we see policy proposals around the country happening that conflict with our values here in Connecticut, we should not think that we are immune to those same forces,” said Thomas, the state’s top elections official, during Tuesday’s press conference. “Every eligible voter deserves an equal opportunity to have their vote counted, no matter their zip code, what their first language is, physical ability and so on.”
Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, was credited at the gathering with introducing the concept of the state voting rights act to the legislature, an idea he said sprung from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He called voting access “an important issue” in Connecticut and told attendees that providing equal access to the ballot box for all state residents “makes sense.”
“There should be one system for the application of the laws,” Lesser said. “Then we have rules of the road for local redistricting and other critical issues. And we’re able to resolve issues locally so that every single resident of this state, every citizen of the state, has the right to vote.”
No Republican legislators spoke at the event, though some lawmakers raised objections to similar efforts in years past — particularly as they pertain to the legislation’s references to race.
Aligned horizontally behind the lawmakers were voting rights advocates from various parts of the state, who also had the opportunity to address the dozens crammed into the first-floor room in the Legislative Office Building.
One of those people was Fulvia Vargas-de León, an attorney who works with the LatinoJustice Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. She said it’s important for the state to ensure that historically disenfranchised communities — namely low-income people and people of color — receive protection from the law when exercising their Fifteenth Amendment right.
The attorney also highlighted how nearly a quarter of Connecticut residents reported speaking a language other than English — and how those people are disregarded by current elections policy.
“The bill is already late when we consider how many elections in the state have been encumbered by voting practices that severely limit who can truly participate in our democracy,” Vargas-de León said. “Democracy cannot work if we continue to allow these discriminatory practices to stand in the way of voters seeking to exercise their constitutional right.”
The reintroduction of the state-level voting rights act comes on the heels of Connecticut residents voting overwhelmingly in favor of in-person early voting, which set the stage for lawmakers to soon amend the state constitution and implement the popular voting practice.
Passage of voting rights protections would build on the momentum community organizers have gained while attempting to modernize the state election system — which boasts a reputation as one of the most restrictive in the country.
Speakers at the gathering Tuesday highlighted Connecticut’s “shameful history” of voter disenfranchisement mainly affecting Black and Puerto Rican voters. For instance, they spoke about how Connecticut was the first state in the Union to require literacy tests, a practice it maintained until the federal Voting Rights Act outlawed the practice.
Currently, the state is one of only four without in-person early voting. The state also has yet to codify no-excuse absentee voting into law.
But in light of the U.S. Supreme Court gutting federal protections against voter disenfranchisement and dozens of states enacting restrictions that have made voting more difficult, people in attendance Tuesday expressed optimism that Connecticut can move in the opposite direction.
“The Connecticut election system deserves to be one of the best in this country,” said Hubert Delany, D-Stamford. “Our voters deserve to know that our elections are fair, well run, efficient and accurate. It is common sense to say that disenfranchising a single voter or a single district should be as difficult as possible to accomplish as we can possibly make it.”
Yanidsi Velez, the New England Regional director of Hispanic Federation, a nonprofit organization working on the frontlines to register Latino voters and provide them resources for the ballot box, said organizers cannot do the work of protecting democracy alone.
“To truly chip away at the systemic barriers, we need legislation that will protect our right to vote by combating discrimination and expanding cultural competent outreach,” Velez said. “We urge, today, legislators to strengthen our democracy and empower the communities across Connecticut.”