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Readers: Absentee, early voting would be more convenient

As a stopgap measure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state legislature instituted what was essentially no-excuse absentee voting in the 2020 election. Most of the voters interviewed by The Day would like to see that change become permanent.

The temporary changes last year prompted record voter turnout. It also caused legislators, activists and election workers, among others, to question not only the future of absentee voting rights in Connecticut, but to champion expanding voting rights in general.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill has said she is "more convinced than ever that offering more options for people in terms of voting is the way to go." She said COVID-19 "exposed the fundamental inflexibility of our election system" and called the results of Connecticut's altered 2020 election processes "a resounding success."

"More than 1.8 million people — a record number of Connecticut voters — cast ballots in November and more than 650,000 of them chose to vote by absentee ballot — 35% of total votes cast," she said during a General Assembly public hearing this year. "And now Connecticut voters are wondering, and contacting my office to ask, why can't they choose to vote this way in every election? Why can't they have the choice between voting early in person, voting by absentee ballot, or voting in-person on Election Day? Why, indeed."

The Day connected with more than 70 readers who had agreed to participate in our election coverage last year through the use of Hearken, a platform that helps media engage with their audience. With the state House expected to vote on multiple measures expanding voting rights, particularly early voting and absentee voting, The Day asked readers two questions: 1) Have you ever had issues that prevented you from voting, or made it difficult? Was it your work schedule, child care issues, a transportation problem, or something entirely different? 2) Would expanding access to absentee voting or early voting, as the state legislature is considering, make it easier, or more likely, for you to vote? Why or why not?

The state House and Senate passed a resolution in 2019 to allow for early voting, but the Senate vote didn't carry a wide enough margin to put the question on the ballot. A simple majority vote in each chamber would put the idea to Connecticut voters in a referendum in 2022. Voters rejected a constitutional amendment for early voting in 2014.

Many respondents said they'd never had a serious issue with voting in southeastern Connecticut but they'd like to see these constitutional amendments adopted to make voting easier and more convenient.

Matthew Shulman of Groton said, "Exceptionally long lines after a full day's work would have been an avoidable inconvenience if I could have voted in advance, whether at Saturday/Sunday early voting sites or by mail or at ballot drop-off points."

Niantic resident Mary Kay Michaels said in the past she has adjusted her work schedule and child care to allow her to vote, sometimes taking her children with her to the polling place to demonstrate the importance of voting.

"Everything should be done to make it easier for ALL Americans to vote," she said. "We should be able to vote using smartphone technology. It's the only way most people bank, communicate, renew passport, licenses, etc. today. Our voting system is outdated."

Ed Pellegri of Waterford, who voted by absentee ballot last year due to COVID-19, is of the same mind.

"Only in America can you be required in some states to go through hoops to vote yet buy a gun with minimal restrictions and cite your constitutional right not to wear a mask or prove you have been vaccinated," he said.  "Constitutional rights by convenience."

Mail delivery can be a problem

Jacob Hurt of Gales Ferry said he was unable to cast his 2020 primary ballot in Ledyard because of the post office slowdowns, which he says were engineered by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. He is in the military, so he votes by absentee ballot.

"Despite applying for the absentee ballot on time, the ballot itself did not arrive at my Honolulu address until the day after the Primary," Hurt said. "This was the case for both my spouse and me. I did not experience this in the General Election, though, thankfully."

Hurt is an ardent supporter of early and no-excuse absentee voting. "Early Voting would give me the option to vote in person if I cannot make it into town on election day," he said.

Conrad Heede of Groton said before he became active in local politics, "life would sometimes get in the way" of voting.

"Between work, school, internships and other commitments, I wasn't always available to vote, not to mention things came up during the day to distract so I didn't always make it to the polls," he said. "It was always easier for National elections. Local is where a longer voting period over several days or mail-in options may have helped ease the process for me personally."

Laura Lee of Ledyard said she's fortunate to live in a town where even on presidential election days, the wait to vote is relatively minimal.

"However, I have had concerns that illness or an unexpected emergency could prevent me from voting on a specific day, which is why I support early and expanded voting access," she said. "I took advantage of no-excuse absentee voting in November because I didn't want to risk being in quarantine on Election Day."

Ledyard, like other parts of the region, does not face the obstacles to voting that different parts of the country do.

"I acknowledge that we have had it pretty easy here in Ledyard," Lee said. "When I hear stories of people waiting for 6+ hours in the elements to vote elsewhere in this country, I am frustrated on behalf of those voters that their local government has made it difficult for them."

A right taken for granted

Bill Kenny of Norwich said that though he's never experienced problems that prevented him from voting, he was vexed by multiple polling place changes in past years. He floated the idea of making Election Day a holiday to increase voter turnout.

"I shouldn't need to have a reason for why I am choosing to vote absentee but should be allowed to do so," he said. "Anything and everything we can do to facilitate the maximum exercise of franchise is to be pursued. We get excited in this country when voter turnout approximates 50%; it should always be closer to 85(%) to 90%."

Stonington resident Mark Bancroft said he's only had trouble voting when he was on active military duty, and supports early and no-excuse absentee voting. "I see no reason not to have early voting (say 30 days) if the procedure can be administered that protects the voting system," he said. "There could be early voting at each city or town hall up to 30 days early. If someone is going to be unable to vote within the 30 days, they can absentee ballot."

Some, such as Stonington resident John Godin, said expanding voting rights wouldn't have an impact on their ability to vote because "I take my right to vote as a Democratic gift. I always make it a top priority to exercise that gift at each election whether in person or by absentee."

Robert Laurie of Stonington said he's never had an issue voting, but early voting "would greatly benefit most people including myself."  He said he thinks absentee voting should be carefully monitored: "It worries me because I believe it can lead to some mischief."

Despite a notable uptick in absentee voting nationwide in 2020's general election, there was no significant corresponding increase in reported voter fraud.

Recent national and statewide focus on voting rights has caused some people, like John Groton of Stonington, to reconsider their views on voting.

"I confess that I have taken my access to voting for granted until recently. I can walk into my town hall and get an absentee ballot and be done in less than five minutes. I can vote in person at the fire department in Stonington, say hello to my friends, and be done in 10 minutes. It's a joy," he said. "But my experience is in the minority for many. We need to be able to make it as easy as possible for all people to vote. Connecticut is regarded as a progressive state. We should lead other states. We should be able to vote early. We should have ballot boxes for easy submission of completed ballots. We have to make voting a celebration of our freedom, our democracy, not a burden that makes our citizens feel disconnected from their representation."

s.spinella@theday.com

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