By Bill Sarno, CTLatinoNews.com
A proposed amendment to Connecticut’s State Constitution that would open the door to in-person early voting, is being touted as a way to widen overall turnout, but could be particularly helpful in getting more Latinos to the polls.
A measure that would set the stage for early voting is winding its way to the legislature and could appear on the general election ballot as soon as November 2020
In the meantime, increasing Hispanic/Latino voter turnout remains very much an issue, especially as candidates maneuver for next year’s crucial presidential and congressional elections.
On the plus side, Hispanic voting increased significantly in the 2018 midterms as compared to the 2014 election in several states that allow early voting. There also was indications of an upward trend in several Connecticut cities, notably New Haven and Waterbury, with large Hispanic population, but still, participation fell below the statewide average, 65 percent, and in some cases lagged by 15-25 percentage points.
An important factor is that the current single-day election system can pose a dilemma for many working families, especially those who have childcare responsibilities and jobs with rigid work schedules that do not provide time off to vote.
While Latinos are not the only people facing voting time restraints, “they over-represent in jobs with limited, flexibility,” said Yanil Teron, executive director of the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford.
Moreover, Connecticut does not require employers to provide time off from work to vote. Consequently, people that work scheduled shifts or hourly wage earners stand to lose pay to participate in elections, according to Ingrid Alvarez, the Hispanic Federation’s state director. She was one of several dozen organization leaders and individuals who in March testified to the legislator’s Joint Committee on Government Administration and Elections in favor of the amendment proposal, H.J. 161.
Non-accommodating employers are not the only hurdle. “Many Latino families are working two or three jobs to make ends meet,” said state Rep. Hilda Santiago. “If the voting includes a weekend day I’m sure that our Latino families will take advantage of the early voting,” the Democratic legislator said.
State Rep. Juan Candelaria of New Haven said an early voting system will make it easier to cast ballots in person for people who “may need to travel or have other responsibilities to attend on election day.”
Candelaria noted that 39 states and Washington D.C. allow early voting, “which an estimated 36 million voters nationwide took advantage of during the 2018 mid-term elections.”
However, Connecticut’s state constitution bars early voting, a situation that could change if the amendment bill, H.J. 161, clears both legislative Houses with the required three-fourths supermajority.
The amendment recently passed the state House of Representatives with a 125-24 bipartisan vote. The bill’s co-sponsors included state Reps. Jason Rojas of East Hartford and Julio Conception of Hartford.
This left it up to the Senate to decide if the amendment proposal is placed on the November 2020 general election ballot. Failure to obtain 27 yes votes in the smaller chamber would delay the statewide vote on this question for at least two years.
The referendum question essentially leaves most of the details of how early voting would be structured to the legislature’s discretion. According to one of the bill’s co-sponsors, state Senator Will Haskell of Fairfield County, a voting period of at least three days before Election Day is likely.
Candelaria, who is a deputy House speaker, said there would be “provisions to allow early voting on the weekend for greater flexibility for those with work and religious commitments.”
In addition to Santiago, several other state legislators with Latino backgrounds provided comments supporting early voting to increase turnout, especially among Latinos.
Candelaria, who is deputy House speaker said, “It [early voting] will also provide canvassers the ability to identify voters that cannot vote on election day and educate them on the new law.”
Rep. Chris Rosario said, “I wholeheartedly believe that early voting will help the Latino Community. It will give people more opportunities to let their voice be heard.
The Bridgeport legislator I’m a little disappointed that No Excuse Absentee Ballots didn’t make it into the final product, but any small victories are good to come by.”
The state legislature discussed loosening some of the restrictions on the use of absentee ballots but that eventually was set aside. In 2014, voters turned down a referendum proposal to allow no-excuse absentee balloting.
State Rep. Geraldo Reyes of Waterbury said, “Any method or process that allows a larger window for voting will absolutely increase Latino and all others participation,” he said.
Reyes also said that greater flexibility when ballots can be cast is especially pertinent in some inner-city areas.
Many of the more than 540,000 Latinos in Connecticut live in the larger cities like Hartford and Bridgeport where turnout is less than other communities and the voting process can be frustrating to those who do make it to the polls.
These urban voters, Alvarez said, “experience longer lines and wait times … and higher incidents of ballot shortages, machine malfunctions or other election systems irregularities that threaten a voter’s ability to cast a ballot.”
Opposition to the early bill included comments at the Joint Committee on Government Administration and Elections hearing from some Stamford residents that it would extend the time for voting fraud.
Another issue, the additional cost of offering more than one election day was discussed and rebutted by Candelaria in a press release.
“Opponents of this measure allude to high implementation costs as a reason to reject it, but it can actually help save money by allowing towns and cities to tailor the process to meet their specific needs,” Candelaria said.
The New Haven legislator also said, “The measure also would reduce the costs of counting absentee ballots, which approximately 6 percent of Connecticut voters utilized last year.”
Attempts to increase voter registration and participation have been underway for several years. The Hispanic Federation was part of a statewide coalition that launched a Get Out the Vote nonpartisan campaign in August 2018 through the closing of the polls on election night.
“This effort mobilized more than 320,000 registered voters to the poll,” Alvarez said, “There is no doubt in our minds that had Connecticut offered early voting as an option for that our collective GOTV output could have significantly increased.”
Now, the implementation of early voting, Alvarez concluded: “is a logical critical next step in our election systems innovation process to sustain the increased voter-turnout and engagement rates we’ve achieved to date.”