Democracy is not just an American value but a fundamental human right, guaranteeing each person the ability to participate in fair and open elections. In the era of COVID-19, enormous questions remain about how we will ensure each person maintains their ability to cast a vote and take part in our democracy. Connecticut can protect this right by expanding vote-by-mail options for all its citizens, removing unnecessary limitations on democratic participation and safeguarding our basic democratic principles.
Connecticut has some of the most restrictive absentee-voting laws in the country. Despite the strong leadership and calls for action from of our Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, our residents still may not obtain an absentee ballot unless they are a poll worker, an active member of the military, sick, out of town during all hours of voting, physically disabled or prevented by their religion. There is no exception for a front-line healthcare provider, or an hourly worker with multiple jobs, or a parent trying to juggle work and child care pickup. In fact, Connecticut is part of a small minority of states that places any restrictions whatsoever on mail-in voting — a full two-thirds of states allow any qualified voter to vote absentee without offering a reason.
Now, in the wake of COVID-19, a new and massive impediment to voting has arrived. Under the current law, the simple fear of exposing yourself to COVID-19 is not a legally valid reason to receive an absentee ballot. In this sense, the pandemic is not just a health crisis — in Connecticut, it poses a risk to democracy itself. No person should be required to risk their health in order to vote, nor should any person be denied the right to vote because they fear contracting an illness.
Using his emergency powers, Gov. Ned Lamont has wisely allowed anyone concerned about going to the polls on Aug. 11 to vote using an absentee ballot. However, the governor’s executive order is only a temporary health measure, and it is now time for the Connecticut legislature to step up and act. The need for expanded voter access goes beyond the immediate crisis. We can no longer leave Connecticut voters behind.
To demonstrate the urgency of this problem and help push the state to act, I’m proud that the West Hartford Town Council has passed a resolution calling on the state General Assembly to remove restrictions on absentee voting permanently. I’m hopeful that other municipal leaders will also lend their voices to this important cause.
After all, this is very much a local issue. The manner in which the upcoming election is conducted will affect the health and safety of municipal poll workers, staff, and every resident voter. The results will also have a major impact on policies that affect municipalities as we work to recover from this pandemic. Securing access to voting is the only way to ensure the election of leaders who truly represent our residents.
The legislature must also take action to help municipalities manage the upcoming election and make certain that our town clerks and registrars have the resources and tools to manage the distribution and collection of ballots, maintaining polling places and reporting results. Voting rights are too fundamental to become an unfunded mandate.
Finally, in addition to changing state law, we can go further and let voters decide if we should update our state Constitution. The legislature should submit to the voters for ratification in November a Constitutional amendment to allow any qualified elector to vote by mail. New England has long been known for its proud tradition of direct and open democracy — a belief in what Henry David Thoreau called the “true Congress” of the people. Allowing our electorate to decide this point directly and make it part of our state Constitution would be a fitting and appropriate step.
Expanding vote-by-mail options should not be a partisan matter. Rather, in the time of a pandemic, it should be seen as common sense. All of us, regardless of party, should want as many voters as possible participating in our elections. I urge the state to act, and to do it quickly.