Last fall, Connecticut residents voted absent in unprecedented numbers. COVID-19 provided the legal justification for expanding access to postal ballot papers. But voters accepted it because it is convenient, safe and secure.
The results spoke for themselves: voter turnout rose to a record 79.7 percent. Lines at polling stations have been reduced. The majority of voters – especially those who voted absent – said they were satisfied with their experience.
Why don’t we do this with every election? The short answer: right now, absentee voting is against the law. Our state constitution lists certain limited, approved reasons for receiving a postal vote. As a result, we need a constitutional amendment to allow postal voting outside of these grounds. In the Committee on Government Administration and Elections, we are currently considering one. This is great and hopefully we will pass it.
But even if we do, changing our constitution will require a special process that will take years to complete – maybe up to five. It is not for nothing that we are called the land of fixed habits.
Here’s what people aren’t talking about: We could now expand access to absentee voting. As restrictive as our state constitution is, our postal voting statutes apply all the more. By expanding the legal grounds for postal voting to their constitutional limits, we can ensure that thousands and thousands more Connecticut voters can cast their votes comfortably and safely. And statutes can be changed simply by sending a draft law through the general assembly with the signature of the governor.
For this reason I have proposed HB 6205, a law to revise certain statutes for postal votes.
This is how it works. Current law requires voters to be absent “during all voting hours” in order to receive a postal vote. However, the state constitution does not provide for this – they can receive postal votes if they simply “cannot appear at the polling station on the day of the election due to their absence”. Likewise, the relevant law provides that a voter only has to receive a postal vote for the illness or disability of the voter. However, the constitution does not state whose illness or disability is significant: the illness or disability can be that of a family member or a patient.
This has dramatic – and absurd – consequences for the real world. Right now, thousands of commuters either have to stay out of town all day until after 8 p.m. to get a postal vote, or they have to be exposed to traffic or train schedules and run back from work to get to the polls in time. A domestic worker who switches from a day shift to caring for his own family has no chance of voting – and cannot vote absent. Someone who cannot leave his disabled mother to vote in the elections cannot receive a postal vote. These people are all just disenfranchised.
Under HB 6205, all of these individuals – commuters, healthcare workers, janitors – would be eligible to receive a postal vote. And the law could go into effect before the local elections in the fall.
HB 6205 is not a panacea – we still need a constitutional amendment to allow full, apologetic absentee voting and to allow all citizens to easily participate in our elections. But it would give a lot more Connecticut voters access to postal voting as the change process progresses. And we have strong evidence that it is constitutional: the governor’s executive order (and our statute which codifies it), which allows anyone to vote absent due to COVID-19, interpreted the constitution’s excuse for “sickness” largely similarly as HB 6205 and has been approved by the Connecticut Supreme Court.
We have no time to lose. The right to vote is one of America’s most sacred rights, enshrined in both our federal and state constitutions. “Where there is disenfranchisement,” our Supreme Court has declared, “a grave injustice is done to the citizen.”
Unfortunately, our state has a long history of disenfranchisement through overly restrictive postal voting laws. The postal vote first took place in Connecticut in 1864 when the state constitution was amended to prohibit our Union soldiers from re-casting their votes. Those too sick or disabled to vote were not allowed to vote by post until 1932. Those whose religious dictates prohibit voting on election day have only been allowed to vote by post since 1964. Today our postal voting laws are some of the most restrictive in the country.
Voting is a fundamental right. To redeem it, we need to make voting safe, convenient and secure for every citizen – and as quickly as possible. At this meeting, the General Assembly must pass a resolution to amend the constitution in order to allow postal voting without excuse. But we should also adopt an invoice that immediately gives the maximum possible access to postal voting. We should pass HB 6205.
Matt Blumenthal is a state representative for the 147th District of the Connecticut General Assembly serving Stamford and Darien.
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