HARTFORD -- The state House of Representatives voted in favor of a rare constitutional amendment Wednesday that would make it much easier to vote by absentee ballot with no reason at all.
The measure would remove all restrictions on obtaining absentee ballots, which are currently granted under only certain circumstances such as being away at college.
But under the state's rules, the Constitutional amendment will not be sent to the ballot for voters to decide in November 2012 because it failed to gain a 75 percent majority. The measure passed 97-50, but 114 votes were needed in the 151-member House chamber.
As a result, the measure will go back to the legislature next year and would need only a majority vote again in each chamber. If that occurs, the measure would be placed on the ballot in November 2014.
Democrats hailed the measure as a move to encourage voters to take part in democracy. They noted that the changes would not become effective until being passed in a statewide election.
But House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk said the resolution goes beyond the narrow issue of absentee ballots.
"In regard to the concept, we are 100 percent on board," Cafero said. "Many of us wanted to have no-excuse absentee ballots. The bill before us gives the possibility of more than that."
The possibilities could include early voting, which would allow people to vote potentially over a period of a week before the actual Election Day. Many elections have been close in Connecticut in recent years, and Democrat Dannel P. Malloy was elected governor in November 2010 by 6,400 votes in the closest gubernatorial election in 56 years.
If approved by the legislature again next year, the question that would be placed on the ballot for voters would be: "Shall the Constitution of the State be amended to remove restrictions concerning absentee ballots and to permit a person to vote without appearing at a polling place on the day of an election?"
Cafero, though, offered an amendment, which failed on a party-line vote, to clarify the language and limit the issue exclusively to absentee ballots. The new question would have been: "Shall the Constitution of the State be amended to remove restrictions concerning absentee ballots?"
In opposing Cafero's amendment, Rep. Russ Morin, co-chairman of the committee that oversees elections, said, "This absolutely narrows down the resolution in front of us. ... I don't agree that the resolution isn't clear."
House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey said Connecticut is one of only two states that places constitutional restrictions on whether lawmakers can change these particular election laws. The constitutional controls over Connecticut lawmakers in that regard date to 1932, "and a lot has happened in those 80 years" since then, Sharkey said. "It does not make sense" 80 years later, he said.
"I hear a different message from my constituents," Sharkey said after Cafero's comments. "My constituents ask me, 'Why is it so difficult to vote by absentee ballot? I would love to be able to vote, but I can't because we have the voting laws that we currently do regarding absentee ballots. Why can't we do multiple-day voting?' ... The answer to them is we can't because our constitution prevents us from taking up these measures."
He added: "I know we need restrictions to protect the integrity of the vote. ... I am not saying I'm an advocate of early voting. I'm not saying I'm an advocate of online voting. ... I think the public is astonished that we can't adopt these provisions because of our constitution."
Rep. Tony Hwang of Fairfield said that "unsupervised remote voting" is a bad idea, and the Democratic-written bill was moving "too fast, too soon."
Rep. John Hetherington, a New Canaan Republican, said: "This is not about absentee voting. ... This is about whether we take all of the language, all of the restrictions [on voting] ... and do away with them."
In his wrap-up remarks, Cafero said a voter currently can get an absentee ballot a full month before the election. By definition, he said, that person is an early voter. By removing all restrictions on filling out absentee ballots, Cafero said, a person could vote at any time, including "on a Saturday at 2 in the morning, on a Sunday in the bathtub."
In the final Democratic remarks, Sharkey said: "I'm not afraid of what we are doing today. ... What I believe we are doing today is making clear that we are not going to tie our hands as a legislature from doing the things that our constituents expect us to do. ... They don't expect us to go to a Constitutional convention every time we want to change our voting laws. Our fundamental goal is to increase voter registration."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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