HARTFORD — When Connecticut voters get ready to cast their ballots this November, they will be asked to decide an issue that combines high-minded ideals with down-and-dirty political calculation.
At stake is a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would pave the way for an easing of current restrictions on the way people can vote in elections. If the change is approved, Connecticut's General Assembly would have the power to allow things like early voting in elections and easier ways to vote by absentee ballot.
Democrats, who control the state legislature, insist all they want to do is make it simpler and easier for people to get involved in the election process. Republicans warn such changes could result in more voter fraud and political shenanigans, and that leaving these sorts of critical decisions to the legislature would be dangerous.
But both major parties are also looking to protect their future electoral prospects.
According to Connecticut political scientists, the debate is not all that much different from controversies over voting rules that have been erupting across the U.S. in recent years. The Connecticut twist is that Democrats are looking for election changes and Republicans are opposing them.
Both Democrats and Republicans, experts say, may be sincere in wanting to help or protect voters, but they are also looking for political advantage.
Studies show that making it easier for people to vote — particularly poor and minority people — tends to help Democrats. And that's what Republicans are worried about.
Election Reform Not Neutral
"All election laws in any era are written in favor of some interest group and opposed to others," said Arthur Paulson, chairman of Southern Connecticut State University's political science department.
"Election reform is not neutral, and it never has been," agreed Gary Rose, a professor of politics at Sacred Heart University.
Democrats now dominate Connecticut's political and governmental landscape. They control the governor's office, the General Assembly and every congressional and statewide office. Democrats naturally favor any changes in election laws that would help cement that political control, Rose said.
In some other states, such as North Carolina and several other southern states, Republicans have majority control of state legislatures. Paulson said the push in those red states, in recent years, has been for reforms that would "limit voting rights" by making it more difficult for certain groups to vote — such as establishing very tough voter identification requirements.
Democrats and civil liberties organizations have filed lawsuits protesting many of those voting law changes as unfair to minorities.
"There has been this tug-of-war going on in this country about reforming voting rights and the way elections are conducted," said Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University.
Connecticut's constitutionally mandated voting rules are much stricter than in many states.
In order to cast a ballot here, a voter must show up at the polls on Election Day. The only other way to vote is by absentee ballot, but Connecticut won't allow that unless a registered voter can provide a specific excuse, such as being out of state on Election Day because of military service or being physically unable to get to the polling station.
The proposed amendment on this year's Connecticut ballot doesn't make any specific changes. What it would do, if approved, would give authority to the General Assembly to pass laws allowing things such as early voting and no-excuse absentee balloting.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 33 states and the District of Columbia now allow early voting in some form, such as opening the polls on the Saturday before Election Day. Such early voting options offer people who find it tough to get away from their jobs on a Tuesday (primarily hourly wage earners, Paulson points out) a more convenient way to vote.
Another 27 states have laws that allow any registered voter to get a "no excuse" absentee ballot without having to offer a specific reason for wanting to vote without going to the polls.
Reforms Could Improve Turnouts
Early voting and no-excuse absentee ballots have been shown to improve voter turnouts in states that have them, Paulson said. And there's little doubt Connecticut could use more people at the polls.
In the Republican and Democratic primaries Aug. 12, barely 20 percent of registered parties members cast ballots. Unaffiliated voters aren't allowed to participate in Connecticut primaries under current party rules.
In the 2012 election, Connecticut's voter turnout was 74 percent, and that was one of the highest in the nation that year. Voter turnout in gubernatorial election years like this one, according to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, is usually about 60 percent of registered voters.
Many other democratic nations around the world routinely have far higher turnouts for elections than the U.S. does, Paulson said. Some nations even fine registered voters who fail to cast ballots in elections.
"Among advanced democracies in the world, the highest turnout in the U.S. is usually lower than the lowest turnout in these other countries," said Paulson.
Those sorts of statistics are the basis for activist groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to push for more relaxed voting rules in places like Connecticut.
"We should be making voting easier and simpler," said McLean, making the argument that the more people are involved in the democratic process, the better it is for everyone.
Those are exactly the reasons given by Connecticut Democrats for their desire to change the constitution. What they don't talk about is that relaxing those voting rules would most likely provide Democratic candidates with a slight additional edge.
Paulson said studies he's done on voter turnout in other states indicate that easier voting systems tend to bring in more poor and minority voters, and that tends to provide Democrats with something like an additional 2 percent advantage in election returns.
"It does help Democrats more than Republicans if you make it easier to vote," Paulson said. The change in voting patterns is relatively small, he added, "but it does make a difference in close elections."
"If the [Democratically controlled] state legislature has full control, you can understand why Republicans feel that would give Democrats the ability to expand their support," said Rose. "Inevitably, one has to conclude that this is a very conscious attempt to expand the Democratic electorate in Connecticut."
At a legislative committee meeting on the constitutional amendment last week, Republicans argued that relaxing Connecticut's standards on absentee ballots would only encourage more fraud.
Rep. David Labriola, R-Oxford, insisted there are already allegations of absentee ballot fraud in virtually every election. Making it easier to get absentee ballots would "open up the floodgates" to more abuse, he said.
Av Harris, a spokesman for the Secretary of the State, said cases of voters attempting to cast multiple ballots or to vote under someone else's name are "really, really rare" in Connecticut. Alleged absentee ballot fraud is more common, and cases in large cities such as New Haven and Bridgeport have resulted in ballots being disqualified in various elections over the past decade for different reasons.
A Democratic operative in New Haven was convicted of stealing absentee ballots in a 2002 town committee contest, but such convictions are rare, officials said. One ABC News study found that only 40 voters were indicted for fraud in federal elections conducted between 2002-05, and only 26 were actually convicted.
The Aug. 12 Democratic primary in Bridgeport did in fact result in a complaint to the state Elections Enforcement Commission about alleged absentee ballot fraud in the contest between Democratic Sen. Andres Ayala and challenger Scott Hughes. Ayala's campaign, which won the election, has denied any wrongdoing.
Several Connecticut political experts, while acknowledging that absentee ballot fraud does happen in this state, rejected the idea that it's widespread or a major threat to the process.
Concern About Dramatic Changes
Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, has a different objection to this year's constitutional amendment. He said it's wrong and potentially dangerous to do away with constitutional restrictions and simply leave it up to a General Assembly controlled by one party to decide how voting should happen.
McLachlan said the change would enable Democrats "to make dramatic changes to our electoral system" because they have a majority in the legislature. He argues that, if Democrats want early voting or no-excuse absentee balloting, they should put those proposals in a constitutional amendment and let voters decide.
"I was accused of being obstructionist," McLachlan said, "but that's bizarre."
At the same time, McLachlan declined to say whether he would support an early voting system or one that allowed easier access to absentee ballots.
Not surprisingly, Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy is all in favor of the proposed amendment and of making it easier for people to vote. "While some states are working to suppress voter turnout, we are working to encourage greater turnout," Malloy said in May.
The Republican gubernatorial candidate, Tom Foley, said through a campaign spokesman that he supports no-excuse absentee voting and "supports measures to make voting easier."
"While Tom strongly supports measures to make voting easier, he believes that rules about voting are fundamental to our system of government and that is why they are deliberately included in the constitution and not subject to decisions of the legislature," Foley spokesman Chris Cooper said. "For that reason he does not support the language of the proposed ballot question. There are certain rights that are properly protected by the Constitution, for very good reasons."
McLean believes the Connecticut GOP may have less to fear from more relaxed voting rules than Republicans in many other states because so many of our voters are unaffiliated.
Last October, the state listed 917,535 unaffiliated voters, compared to 798,478 registered Democrats and 436,550 registered Republicans.
Those independent voters are the ones that almost always decide Connecticut elections, and McLean said he doubts a slight increase in the number of pro-Democratic voters would have much effect.
But any increase in Democratic voters is likely to send chills down GOP spines, Rose said. "This type of reform would only added to the problems the Republican Party has in this state of being competitive," he said.