A voter, wearing a red sweater, is casting a ballot at the Hartford Public Library.
A voting scene on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 at Hartford Public Library. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law Monday a bill to protect historically disenfranchised communities from discrimination at the ballot box, including key protections once considered a stronghold of the 1965 Voting Rights Act before it was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority.

The legislation, labeled the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of Connecticut, was signed as part of the state’s $51 billion biennium budget. It was folded into the budget because its implementation includes more than $3 million in state funding over the next two fiscal years. With the governor’s signature, Connecticut joins five other states — California, Oregon, Washington, Virginia and New York — that have made the state-level voting rights act law. 

“I’m just so excited that it passed through the budget,” said Steven Lance, a policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the organization that helped introduce the bill to the Connecticut legislature. “It really was a lot of work from people inside the legislature, the secretary of the state’s office, the governor’s office and all the advocates across the state. It’s thrilling to see it just now being signed into law. And I’m sure it will have profound positive effects for equal democracy in Connecticut.”

Passage of the bill, which starts going into effect on July 1 and will be fully enacted by the start of next year, comes as the state has opted to implement two weeks of early voting starting next year following overwhelming support from residents during the 2022 midterm election.

The legislature, which adjourned last week, also green-lighted a proposal allowing voters to decide on no-excuse absentee voting during the 2024 general election. Each of the proposals were championed by Black and Latino voters, who have historically borne the brunt of voter disenfranchisement in Connecticut, as well as other minority groups — such as people who don’t primarily speak English and people with disabilities. 

Mirroring key protections in the federal Voting Rights Act, the new state law requires municipalities with a record of voter discrimination to receive “preclearance” from either the secretary of the state or a superior court before implementing changes to election-related policies.

At the federal level, preclearance was gutted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, a key provision that helped the government prevent jurisdictions from implementing new policies to disenfranchise minority voters — including at least three Connecticut towns: Southbury, Groton and Mansfield.

The three were subject to preclearance because, during the 1968 presidential election, less than 50% of the voting age population had cast ballots. According to the Department of Justice, Connecticut later filed a successful “bailout” of preclearance lawsuit, which means that it was able to demonstrate that voting discrimination hadn’t occurred in the decade preceding the bailout request.

The law also prevents municipalities from taking actions that would interfere with the right to vote of any protected class member, defined as a class of citizens who are members of a race, color or language minority group. It also requires 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 allow superior courts to “order appropriate remedies” if and when it finds that a municipality violated the law.

Residents can also sue against acts of intimidation, deception or obstruction that interfere with their right to vote. Additionally, the bill mandates the creation of a publicly accessible database under the secretary of the state’s office, in partnership with the University of Connecticut or a Connecticut State University System member, providing elections and demographics information. 

Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas said Monday that her office’s legal team is reviewing the legislation to get a clear sense of what all it may entail, adding that it was a great effort on behalf of the proponents. 

“Obviously, there are so many sections. The preclearance … what I heard from some people is, ‘Do we really have to worry about this in Connecticut?’ And what I tried to remind people is there are purposeful acts that disenfranchise voters but also unintentional acts,” Thomas said. “So just having tools in place where the people can have recourse and redress I think is hugely important.”

During debates over the legislation, some lawmakers shared concerns about the bill granting broad authority to the secretary of the state and superior court judges. 

Thomas said Monday that if anything raises a flag in her office’s review of the legislation — specifically the power allotted to the secretary of the state — her team will ask the legislature for a fix or put out an explanatory note to the public.

“I think the public should feel confident that, at least under my administration, we are not looking to have an outsize influence in the way that was described in the General Assembly by some members,” she said. 

The 2023 legislative session was a notable one for voting access in Connecticut, with the state voting rights act playing a sizable role. Ironically, Connecticut was the first state to implement literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting, a practice outlawed by the federal Voting Rights Act. 

In a statement after passage of the bill through the legislature, a coalition of local civil rights organizations — including the ACLU of Connecticut, Common Cause in CT and the Hispanic Federation — said that the act would aid Connecticut in becoming “a national leader by serving a critical local need.”

“It will safeguard the right to vote and build a stronger, more inclusive democracy,” the statement said, “both here in Connecticut and across the nation, by serving as a model for other states. By recognizing the urgent need to protect and expand access to the ballot box, Connecticut lawmakers have taken a crucial step towards ensuring that every eligible citizen can exercise their right to vote freely, without undue barriers or discrimination.”

Jaden is CT Mirror's justice reporter. He was previously a summer reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune and interned at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. He received a bachelor's degree in electronic media from Texas State University and a master's degree in investigative journalism from the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.