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Connecticut needs to expand mail-in voting

Wisconsinites wearing face masks as they stood in the rain to vote might have illustrated the commitment of Americans to our democracy — except that there could have been safer ways to cast their ballots. Amidst that state’s rise in coronavirus cases, so many poll workers had refused to participate that the number of open polls in Milwaukee was reduced from 180 to 5 — thus the long wait in the rain. While Wisconsin had tried simultaneously to postpone in-person voting and to allow for more time for voters to return absentee ballots, the Republican-dominated state court in Wisconsin, followed by the conservative U.S. Supreme court, denied both measures, forcing Wisconsinites to risk their lives and the lives of others as they waited to cast their ballot. 

Although I was relieved when Bernie Sanders dropped out, leaving Joe Biden as the only Democratic candidate, which ended any reason for continuing the primaries, they will take place amidst various stages of lock-down. Moreover, in the hope of increasing his influence on the new president, Sanders is remaining on the ballot, which will pressure Democrats to come out and vote for either Sanders or Biden, despite any fears they have for their safety.  

Historically, going to the polls has been an American ritual. Yet in recent years, voters have increasingly opted to mark their ballots in their own homes and stick them in the mailbox. More than 23 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail in the 2016 election, twice as many as in 2004. 

As “social distancing” remains our only option to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and many areas of the country still face peaks in their infection rates, states are searching for ways to protect their elections. Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Michigan, which all have mail-in voting, are prepared for this, and California, which allows mail-in voting with automatically sent ballots, has the capacity to get quickly up to speed. But other states are taking their own steps. In Rhode Island, the secretary of state wants all 788,000 registered voters to receive absentee ballot applications. In Maryland, a special election to replace the late Representative Elijah E. Cummings will be conducted as a practice run entirely by mail. 

Connecticut’s primary, which was supposed to have occurred on April 28th, has been rescheduled for June 2nd.  But will it will be safe for both poll workers and voters to spend time at the polls?  And what about the presidential election in November, which may take place during a fall surge in coronavirus? Although our state takes pride in its democratic processes, so far we have not made sure that registered voters can actually cast their ballots, even during a pandemic. 

Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s secretary of the state, has outlined two necessary changes to expand the use of absentee ballots, and so prepare for the large number of people who may be too ill to vote in person, or who may fear going to a polling place in November. 

First, the Legislature must vote for a Constitutional Amendment that removes the restrictive absentee voting language and provides for early voting. If the legislature agrees to this Amendment with a super-majority, voters can decide on it this November.

Second, moving to mail-in voting will demand emergency funding for changes to our voting infrastructure. Additional people will need to be hired to verify signatures, and to open, sort and feed mailed in ballots into our tabulators.  While we may need fewer polling places, some of our bigger towns will need space to collect and store, under lock and key, an unprecedented number of mailed ballots. Assuming that the state chooses not to send every registered voter a mail-in ballot, there will need to be an online mechanism for requesting an application for mail-in ballots. 

As gaining access to the ballot box has become a partisan issue, with Republicans from President Trump on down fearing that more voters means more democratic victories, they have argued that mail-in ballots increases the potential for voter fraud. But Trump himself votes by absentee ballot, and members of the military traditionally vote by mail. More important, those states with systems for mail-in ballots have kept their voting free of corruption. 

Though our public health emergency has provoked a democratic emergency, there is no better time than now for Connecticut to expand our use of mail-in ballots. 

Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.

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