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Connecticut’s new voter law bucks national trend

Khalil Abdullah

Connecticut is now poised to become only the ninth state — 10th if Washington, D.C., is counted —to enact election-day registration, otherwise known as EDR. Bucking a national campaign toward greater restrictions, the move is expected to enhance access to the polls for first time voters.

“We want to take Connecticut in a different direction,” says Secretary of State Denise Merrill. She applauds her state’s action as a contrast to the flurry of legislative activity in states across the country seeking to impose additional barriers on registration or voting.

Merrill, who took office in 2010, was a key force behind introduction of HR 5024.

Approved by the Democratic- controlled state Senate in early May, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, has openly endorsed the bill and is expected to sign it into law. While it won’t take effect until 2013, and thus will have no practical effect on this year’s presidential race, proponents say the bill offers a glimpse of how to better engage the electorate.

“Today is a great day in Connecticut,” Malloy said in a written statement following the Senate’s approval. “Despite the pervasive climate across the U.S. to restrict voting rights, Connecticut has moved in the opposite direction — one that ensures the integrity of our electoral process is fair.”

Under the bill, unregistered first-time voters will be allowed to register on election day after filling out a voter registration form and providing the same form of identification required of all registrants. They will also be required to swear under oath that they have not previously voted in the election.

Voters will not be eligible to register on the day of a primary, only for the general election in November.

Research has shown that EDR typically yields higher voter turnout. Five of the six states that recorded the highest rates of voter participation in the 2008 election allow EDR, which has also proven effective in elevating voter participation in minority communities and among youth.

Sen. Gayle Slossberg (D-Milford), the co-chairwoman of the General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, was quoted as saying, “one out of every three eligible voters [in Connecticut] is not registered,” noting also that in states with EDR, voting rates have climbed by 10 to 12 percent.

Opponents have voiced concern, however, over voter fraud and other potential problems that could stem from same-day registration. In 2003, an EDR bill was put before then-Gov. John Rowland, who vetoed the measure citing problems with the state’s computerized voting registry system.

Merrill dismisses such concerns, pointing to states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, both of which have had EDR laws on the books since the 1970s, long before the advent of the computer age. She adds that today’s technology allows registrars to more easily detect cases of attempted fraud.

“I don’t think registering to vote should be seen as a barrier to voting,” she says.

Still, Merrill acknowledges, “change is always tough.” Resistance has come from local registrars concerned about the state having adequate funds for personnel to staff voting sites and to purchase computers to replace those that will inevitably become dysfunctional.

“We have 169 mostly small towns running the elections,” she said, and the image of an “antiquated system with little old ladies crossing off names in pencil” persists. As to the implementation of EDR, Merrill’s team spoke at length to election officials and peers in Wisconsin on “how the mechanics work on the ground.”

Merrill’s commitment to EDR gained renewed vigor after she attended her first National Association of Secretaries of State meeting in 2011, winding up on a committee examining voting policies alongside newly-elected Kris Kobach of Kansas. Kobach, who had assisted in drafting punitive anti-immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama, spoke on the need for additional legislation to more aggressively root out ineligible voters, recalls Merrill.

Returning from the meeting, she began to rally supporters, including Gov. Malloy, to the EDR cause.

“I had no idea at the time we introduced legislation that there would be this national move to restrict voting, and I see it as exactly that,” Merrill said.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there are now 10 states that require a state-issued photo ID in order to vote. Prior to the 2011 legislative session there were only two.

Gov. Malloy, at an April press conference with legislators from the state’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, criticized the tilt toward increased restrictions. “No one, five or six years ago, or even three years ago, would have guessed that states would be taking up laws to limit access to voting,” he said.

As to the campaign’s motive, his judgment was harsh. “I will go so far as to say racist in its intent.”

New America Media