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