Connecticut, the Land of Steady Habits, is one of those quaint jurisdictions that still compresses its voting calendar for each election to one day — a Tuesday, which is a workday for most people.
So if Election Day occurs in the middle of a hurricane; if a polling place lacks electricity or burns down on that special Tuesday; if it is filled with an extraordinary turnout — tough. Election officials and voters just have to make do — even if that means citizens must stand in the rain for hours or struggle to find an unfamiliar alternative voting site.
The only exception to voting on Election Day is spelled out in the state Constitution: Those relatively few people who qualify to use an absentee ballot can do so, but only if they are "unable to appear at the polling place on the day of election because of absence from the city or town of which they are inhabitants or because of sickness or physical disability or because the tenets of their religion forbid secular activity."
The limited time for most people to vote allowed by Connecticut is an unnecessary inconvenience. It will be changed, eventually. Connecticut isn't primitive; it's just slow on this.
Why We're So Slow
Connecticut is rare among states in prohibiting early voting in its constitution — which makes relaxing that rigid rule more difficult.
The legislature took an overdue step this year in passing a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment stripping away the policy straitjacket embedded in the antique language quoted above. If the resolution gets a second legislative approval this coming session, it will then go to the people for a statewide vote in 2014.
Passage would allow lawmakers to get creative about expanding voting opportunities: authorizing, for example, early voting, voting by mail, online voting or no-excuse absentee voting. That would let Connecticut catch up — although years late — with the majority of states that have modernized their elections.
Early voting makes sense. It neutralizes the impact of bad weather on elections. It gives busy people a lot of voting options. Although long lines of voters have been a feature of early voting in some states, think how bad it would be if voting were allowed only on that one Tuesday.
Early voting increases turnout. Connecticut's turnout in recent presidential elections has been on the rise: Tuesday's was estimated at nearly 80 percent. But other elections have been dismal: Only 14 percent of registered Democrats and Republicans showed up for the August 2008 primary election, for example.
The Menu Of Options
Connecticut native and iconic multiparty advocate Ralph Nader favors early voting as long as it isn't too early. He argues that if people vote too early before Election Day, they won't be fully informed about what the candidates believe and may regret their vote. He also sees value in Americans celebrating democracy together by casting their ballots on an Election Day. Mr. Nader proposes a "voting week" rather than prolonged early voting. He makes points worth thinking about, but convenience should get priority. A two-week window before Election Day might be better.
Connecticut's chief election official, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, doesn't think much of online voting as an option. Critics say it's an easy target for hackers and subject to other forms of fraudulent activity. But if we can do banking and bill-paying safely online, why not voting? Surely secure systems can be developed.
Just allowing more absentee ballots, however, would be an improvement here — and the risk of fraud is tiny with proper safeguards. Oregon, which mails ballots to all registered voters, has seen less than 10 incidents of voter fraud out of tens of millions of ballots cast.
State lawmakers have a couple of years to develop a package of reforms that will give voters more options. It's long past time.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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