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Area Republican legislators mostly in favor of absentee, early voting measures

Local Republican legislators are generally receptive to measures that would establish early voting and no-excuse absentee voting in Connecticut — with some caveats.

Democrats in the state legislature have made their support for House Resolutions 58 and 59 known, but despite the Democratic majority in both chambers, Republicans hold some sway, especially on the absentee voting measure.

The measures are proposed as constitutional amendments, which require a vote by the general public. The state House and Senate passed a resolution in 2019 that would allow for early voting, but the Senate vote didn’t carry a wide enough margin to put the question on the ballot right away. 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.

For the absentee voting measure to be on the 2022 ballot, though, it has to pass with a 75% majority vote in the House and Senate.

Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Tuesday ahead of the House session that he wasn’t sure the bill would have the necessary support.

“One of the reasons we waited for these bills was to get through the special elections. We want to see the attendance, to make sure we have folks there,” he said. “Right now, I’m nervous we’re not going to get to 75%. I don’t want to let people think that I’m overly optimistic. It’s going to require bipartisan support, and I’m not sure we’re going to get there right now, but we’ll see.”

Ritter said the House likely will take up early voting on Thursday and the absentee balloting question within the next week.

“If we can’t get 75%, I think I said this last time, someone should sue,” Ritter said Tuesday.

Southeastern Connecticut Republicans who responded to The Day’s requests for comment said they were fundamentally in favor of early voting and rolling back restrictions on absentee voting. They sought to dispel the notion that Republicans are opposed to such voting measures.

“I know a lot of my Republican colleagues have been accused of not wanting early voting or absentee voting,” said Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme. “I think the concern is around the security that is different from what it is at the polling place, but I don’t believe it should be ‘The Democrats are going to do a better job than Republicans of getting the vote out.’ I don’t think that’s a valid excuse to go against it. There has to be some type of control in terms of verifying and keeping the integrity of everybody’s vote.”

Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, and other Republicans say they’re wary of possible voter security issues with the measures as they stand.

“When you look at how the 2020 election went, there were a lot of things dealing with what I call ‘chain of custody’ for ballots,” France said. “What I mean by that is the drop boxes — if you brought an absentee ballot in to the town clerk, the town clerk would only accept yours, they would not accept you dropping off anyone else’s ballot. By putting these drop boxes in, you could literally drop 10 ballots in there that your friends gave to you to drop off.”

According to Connecticut’s general statutes, voters can have a “designee” return their absentee ballot. A designee can be a family member; someone who is caring for the voter because they are in poor physical health, such as a medical professional; a police officer or a local voting official.

France noted that he did not suspect widespread fraud or wrongdoing in Connecticut in terms of the voting process and election results. Still, “We believe there ought to be signature verification as part of that constitutional amendment because the five states that do their voting all by mail do a robust electronic signature verification that takes the voter registration signature and electronically verifies it with the signature on the ballot.”

It’s possible, he said, that Republicans will introduce such an amendment when the absentee voting resolution comes to the House floor. While similar amendments have failed in committee, “I’m hopeful the debate will be had again, and maybe we can be more persuasive in the House,” he said.

Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said she believes voting "should be encouraged, supported and made accessible." She didn't make a commitment either way regarding no-excuse absentee voting. "I supported and was glad to vote for HR 59 on early voting in the past when it came in front of the House," she said. "I will listen to the debate on HR 58."

Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, said early voting is an “easy yes.” He raised a different security issue about expanding absentee voting rights, specifically the possibility of the secretary of the state or another agency mailing out ballot applications to eligible voters, a practice used in the 2020 election because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The one concern I do have is the idea of no-excuse absentee voting turning into mass mailing of ballots, because that is ripe for fraud,” he said. “I’m interested to hear the direction the debate may go, and if it’s a system that goes back to say the 2018 election, the way absentee balloting was done then, except now you don’t need an excuse, that’s something I could get on board with. But if we’re talking about mass mailing ballots, or mass mailing applications, that’s going to cause me to pause and think a little bit more about it.”

The current proposed amendment does not mention anything about the government mailing out ballots to potential voters. But Howard was not alone in his worry that policies implemented during the pandemic would continue. His concerns echo those of Republicans in state legislatures across the country, who have introduced bills to prevent the automatic mailing of absentee ballots to every eligible voter as a part of hundreds of bills nationwide to restrict voter access.

Formica expressed his disagreement with a bill, considered in the Senate’s session on Wednesday, that would “extend through November 3 certain temporary changes that were made to state law for the 2020 elections due to the deadly COVID-19 viral pandemic,” a Wednesday news release from state Senate Democrats reads.

The bill would allow people to vote absentee because of COVID-19, allow municipal clerks to mail absentee voting materials using a vendor chosen by the secretary of the state and it provides for the use of drop boxes, among other things.

Formica took exception to the Senate bill, which he distinguished from the resolution for a constitutional amendment because it “seems to be circumventing the constitutional process by just extending it to November,” he said. “I don’t agree with circumventing the constitutional process, but I would be supportive of being a little more liberal in terms of absentee voting.”

Aside from their caveats, the legislators essentially shared Formica’s opinion.

“I don’t have a problem with no-excuse absentee voting going before the electorate for their decision,” he said. “I think that the vast majority of people want early voting and no-excuse absentee voting on both sides of the aisle.”

Other local Republican legislators did not respond to requests for comment.

s.spinella@theday.com

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