New Voter Bill Helps Connecticut Latinos


By Rod Carveth
While Florida and 13 other states have passed laws to make it more difficult for Latinos to register and vote this November, on June 4 Governor Dannel Malloy signed legislation allowing eligible citizens of Connecticut to register and vote on future Election Days.
The provisions of the bill, H. B. 5024, will help younger, more geographically mobile, and lower-income citizens – many of them Latino – register to vote and participate in the political process.
Connecticut is now the 10th state in the nation to allow same day registration and voting.  The new state law also includes online voter registration.  Any eligible individual who has a Connecticut driver’s license or identification card will be able to register to vote from any computer or phone with Internet access.
Tomas Reyes, head of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus, observed the bill, “obviously will make registration and get people involved in the process much easier.”  He noted, however, there is no better way to get people to participate in the process than voter education.  Reyes stated, “No law will take the place of knocking on the doors of voters and talking to them — a process that requires hard work.”  In addition, Reyes called on community agencies to be most aggressive in getting people out to vote.”  He warned that while having the law is a help, “we don’t want people to go to sleep.”   Reyes also pointed out that while Latino voter turnout is low overall, when “there is a Hispanic candidate, the numbers go higher.”
Alma Maya, Bridgeport’s town clerk, whose office deals only with absentee ballot applications, verifying them and passing them on to the registrars of voters, said she’s all for giving people opportunities to vote, but has concerns about same-day registration.  “I’m just concerned with how it’s going to be handled, because I’ve seen in the past a lot of irregularities,” she said, adding that the key to making it work will be having sufficient enforcement in place.
Maya said she was glad the legislature didn’t approve no-reason absentee ballots, which it had considered.  “To have no-reason absentee voting is essentially early voting and if we’re going to have early voting, let’s have it for everyone,” she said.
Secretary of State Denise Merrill says that the new law is a good first step of increasing voter turnout, but for a group as important as Latinos are to the state of CT, the law is only a first step.  “We really need to have Latinos participate in voting because they are such a fast-growing group in the state.”  That is why, Merrill said, she hired long-time community activist Lourdes Montalvo to do specific outreach into the state’s Latino population.   Merrill expects Montalvo to draw on her experience with the State Employee Independents Union, where she developed strategies for better Latino voter registration and participation.
Av Harris, communication director for Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, anticipated the new state voter registration law  “will increase voter turnout.”  He cited a report by the think tank Demos entitled “Voters Win with Same Day Registration,” that revealed the average turnout in the nine states and the District of Columbia with same day voter registration was nearly 6 percentage points higher than in states without same day registration.  In other words, nearly 640,000 Americans were able to register and vote in the November 2010 election because of same-day voter registration laws.
In addition, a state report entitled 2011 Connecticut Civic Health Index revealed that in 2010 Latinos had a lower voter registration percentage (45.8 percent) compared to whites (66.9 percent) and African Americans (52.5 percent).  Further, voter turnout for Latinos was only 22.9 percent compared to that of whites (50.7 percent) and African Americans (39.9 percent).  Most striking was the gap between voter registration and voter turnout.  Only half of all registered Latinos voters in Connecticut voted in 2010.
Harris and Merrill both pointed out that the legislature also voted to begin a process to change the state constitution to allow for additional changes to the voting process.   Harris noted that Connecticut has specific language in its Constitution that governs the manner of voting, such “non-precinct place” voting.  This session, the legislature passed a law to remove the restrictive language.  However, the legislature needs to pass the same bill next session, after which the measure will become a statewide referendum to be voted on in 2014.
In changing the state Constitution, Merrill stated, Connecticut could not only liberalize absentee ballot processes, it could even change the day of the week people voted.  “A large portion of Latinos in the state are Puerto Rican,” Merrill stated.   Unlike Puerto Ricans in state, where less than one out of four vote, “in Puerto Rico, over 90 percent of their citizens vote in  an election.  Why?  Because it’s a holiday in Puerto Rico.”  Merrill lamented. “Elections on our country are run for the bureaucracy.”  She proposed, “We need voting to be a celebratory kind of activity.”  One way of doing that would be to move Election Day to the weekend.
This new legislation runs counter to recent actions of a number of states to limit voter access.  Since November 2010, over 180 bills have been introduced across the nation to restrict voter registration.  Fourteen states have made voter registration tougher, actions that have had a disproportionate negative impact on Hispanics.  In Florida, for example, Republican Governor Rick Scott has ramped up efforts to identify and remove non-U.S. citizens from the voter rolls.  Even in Wisconsin, which is one of the nine current states that has Election Day registration, the Republican-controlled state government is poised to pass legislation to eliminate it.
On Tuesday, Governor Dannel Malloy spoke before the 103rd meeting of the NAACP in Houston.  Though he did not mention the new CT voter registration law, he decried efforts in state legislatures that “challenges the right to vote.  We have got to fight that with everything in our power.  We have to understand that what is happening in this country is the desire to disenfranchise American citizens.”
Malloy compared legislation that requires acquiring voter identification to “the reintroduction of the poll tax.”  “By the way,” Malloy warned.  Laws making it more difficult to register to vote are “intended to have an adverse consequence on young people, on old people, on black people, on Latino people, on Asian Americans.”  Malloy observed that nationally, 2 million more African and 2 million more Latinos voted in 2008 than in 2004.  He predicted that if the trend to more restrictive voting laws continued, as many as 5 million voters could be denied the right to vote in December.
Andrew Doba, communications director for Gov. Malloy, said,” We’re excited about the law.  Connecticut is taking a different stand than other states.”  Doba observed that all the data that they have seen in the Governor;s office suggests that the legislation will increase Latino voter registration and voter turnout.  Doba stated, “This legislation is designed to give all communities a stronger voice in the democratic process.”
The new law’s provision for same day registration will become effective July 2013 while online voter registration takes effect January 2014.
(Editor’s note: Writer Doug Maine contributed to this piece.)