Connecticut’s state constitution makes voting harder for people who can’t take time off from work, travel to the polls or navigate long lines, which disproportionately hurts voters of color.
But a proposed constitutional amendment and a push for the Democratic-controlled state to adopt a version of the federal Voting Rights Act could change that landscape in time for the 2024 presidential election.
“Connecticut’s voting environment is getting better. Things are moving in the right direction,” said Patricia Rossi, vice president of public issues and advocacy for the League of Women Voters of Connecticut. “There are still difficulties, but compared to most states, we had a long way to go.”
In most hotly contested elections, Connecticut voters — especially in communities where more Black and Latino residents live — can see hours-long waits at the polls. That even happened in the November 2020 presidential election, despite widespread voting by mail because of a temporary relaxation of absentee ballot rules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Little flexibility for voters
Connecticut’s restrictive approach to absentee ballots and a state constitutional ban on early voting stand out among states where Democrats control all branches of state government.
Although the state has offered emergency exceptions for voters who fear COVID-19 exposure, permanent law in Connecticut limits absentee ballots to a tight set of reasons. And the few Connecticut voters who can submit absentee ballots must ensure they’re received by the time the polls close on Election Day.
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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Connecticut adheres to end-of-day voting deadlines, but a recent decision to make absentee ballot drop boxes a permanent feature will give residents an alternative to mailing their ballots.
And while early voting won’t be an option in this November’s midterm elections, it could be in place for the 2024 presidential vote and future elections. Voters will decide in a referendum this November if the state constitution should be amended to allow it.
“By giving more people access to the ballot box, early voting would strengthen the democratic process,” wrote David McGuire, ACLU of Connecticut’s executive director. “Limitations on early voting disproportionately hurt voters of color, people with little job flexibility, people lacking transportation, people lacking childcare, people with disabilities, voters without identification, and voters who lack language access.”
The voter registration deadline is a week before Election Day, but there’s same-day registration for voters who need it. Still, that doesn’t come without difficulty: Voters can’t register at their polling place but instead need to go to a separate designated Election Day registration location in their town.
In April, Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law changes that expand those eligible to cast absentee ballots to out-of-town commuters and certain caretakers. But those eligible to vote absentee this year will fall far short of the more than 600,000 Connecticut voters casting ballots by mail and drop box in the 2020 general election under loosened COVID-19 rules.
Next year, advocates hope lawmakers will approve putting a constitutional amendment before voters that would allow no-excuse absentee voting, Rossi said. If they do, the resolution would appear on the ballot in 2024.
Something Connecticut will likely have to address if absentee voting is expanded: ballot curing. It’s a process that allows voters whose absentee ballots are rejected, due to a missing signature or other problem, the opportunity to fix the issue and have their vote counted.
As current state law and practice stand, ballots returned unsigned are rejected without the opportunity to be corrected.
“Imagine you walk into a restaurant, and you see the menu is in a language you don’t understand, and the waiter speaks to you in that language, and nobody’s helping you out. You might immediately feel like you’re not welcome there,” said Steven Lance, a policy counsel at the Legal Defense Fund. “Now imagine having that experience at the polls, at the level of your right to vote. Language assistance can increase turnout and feelings of inclusion.”
The Multilingual Virtual Poll Worker system, announced by the Secretary of the State’s office in April, is an on-demand solution to help voters in more than 250 languages and dialects. Through it, voters and poll workers can quickly connect with high-quality interpreters through phone and video calls.
The federal Voting Rights Act includes a provision requiring communities to offer assistance in languages other than English if they are spoken by more than 5% of the population. Connecticut’s language assistance with ballot instructions will be offered throughout the state, regardless of local population thresholds.
A state Voting Rights Act
Connecticut’s legislature declined to pass a comprehensive Voting Rights Act earlier this year that advocates say would have made the state a national leader in providing equitable access to voting.
“This bill saw strong support last session from legislators, from good government groups, and civil rights organizations,” Lance said. “We think 2023 is very likely to be the year that it comes forward, and we will work with any legislators who will take it up.”
The bill would make it easier for voters to challenge discriminatory aspects of the voting process in court.
“By addressing issues such as inconvenient or insufficient polling locations, wrongful voter purges, lack of drop boxes, as well as decisions that result in longer lines during elections, the Connecticut Voting Rights Act will take on practices that create unjust barriers for people of color,” wrote Fulvia Vargas-De León with LatinoJustice PRLDEF.
Similar to a provision in the federal Voting Rights Act that was struck down by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013, the bill would launch a “preclearance” program that would require municipalities with histories of discrimination to prove any proposed voting changes will not harm voters of color.
The state bill would also strengthen protections against voter intimidation by requiring a judge to remedy situations of misinformation and intimidation. This means that a judge could address a problem caused by bad actors by ordering an appropriate remedy, including voter education, additional time to vote or money damages, Lance said.
“Local officials often set policies based largely on how they affect the town budget,” Rossi said. “Sometimes policy changes have bad consequences, like requiring voters to stand in line for two hours to vote, or voters not knowing their polling place has changed because money wasn’t spent on getting that notice out. People who may arrive at the wrong polling place may not have the time or means to travel to the right one.”
Despite the failure to pass a state Voting Rights Act this year and the slow process for amending the state constitution, advocates for expanded and more equitable access to voting are celebrating a number of changes Connecticut has made over the past few years.
Formerly incarcerated people are now allowed to vote while on parole or probation. The state also ended a longtime practice called prison gerrymandering, which counted the population of incarcerated people in the towns where they are imprisoned instead of their hometowns. The old method provided disproportionate legislative clout to majority white districts where prisons were located, even though the incarcerated people, disproportionately Black and Latino, were not allowed to vote there.
“Voting rights are improving in Connecticut,” Rossi said. “We’re on the cusp of instituting early voting, something 46 states already have, and we’re about to be on the cusp of having no-excuse absentee voting.”
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