By Jana Jedrych
When urgency about the spread of Covid-19 began to pick up speed in the early months of 2020, many states scrambled to determine what effect the pandemic would have on voter turnout, which is depressingly low in America at the best of times. Many states made temporary changes to their election laws to allow a drastic expansion in the number of absentee voters in 2020 and 2021, including Connecticut, where—despite usually having some of the most restrictive absentee voting laws—all registered voters had the option to vote by absentee ballot.
But, as with many Covid-caused restrictions that loosened or lifted in 2022, Connecticut’s absentee voting qualifications are returning to a state more similar to their pre-2020 requirements, with some changes indicative of the ongoing considerations of Covid-19. Both restrictions and allowances have been made to absentee voters in Connecticut—possible excuses for absentee voting have been expanded, but provisions that would ensure more effective exercise of absentee voting power have been rejected.
Governor Ned Lamont signed CT H 5262 on April 8th, 2022. The bill expands the excuses a voter can employ to be eligible for absentee voting in a way that reflects the current state of election law post-2020’s pandemic voting challenges. Previously, absentee voting because of sickness was only allowed if the voter applying for the absentee designation was ill. This bill allows for absentee voting in the event of the broader definition of “sickness,” which includes taking care of other sick individuals. Exposure to a disease, even if the individual is not currently sick, also qualifies as “sickness” under this bill. Similarly, the bill also expands the ability of voters to qualify as absentee on the grounds of a disability. Before, only those who personally had a disability were able to vote absentee on the grounds of disability, but in this bill the definition of “disability” as an excuse has been expanded to include being the caregiver of a disabled person, frailty from a medical condition, and limited mobility from old age.
However, CT H 5262 and another recently-passed Connecticut election law bill, CT S 470, included components that limited the eligibility of Connecticut voters to vote absentee. CT H 5262 expands the requirement for unavailability on Election Day; instead of only being unavailable during voting hours on Election Day, voters must now be unavailable for the entirety of Election Day.
CT S 470 was signed into effect on May 10th, 2022 and allowed for the disclosure of unique voter identification numbers, removing them from the list of confidential voter registration information that cannot be disclosed. But the bill previously contained provisions intended to ensure the efficacy of absentee voters’ ballots, and those provisions were amended out of the version of the bill signed by the governor. In an earlier form, the bill outlined procedures that would require local election committees to notify a voter if his absentee ballot had been rejected and educate him on his right to vote in person. The current law does not speak to whether or not a voter has to be notified if his absentee ballot is rejected. The earlier version of the bill also included a provision requiring local election officials to count ballots throughout Election Day instead of at a single time on Election Day, which is what the current law provides for.
Connecticut’s current changes to the requirements for absentee ballots are an interesting look at how election law might be irrevocably changed by the pandemic. In many ways, it’s back to business as usual—the state is not eager to discontinue being one of 17 states that requires an excuse to vote absentee. But broadened definitions of sickness and disability in some ways reflect how attitudes towards sickness have changed as a result of Covid-19. In any case, it could be argued that the usefulness of allowing individuals to vote absentee is dampened when the state refuses to put practices in place to ensure that all absentee voters’ votes count. Not requiring that voters be informed when their absentee ballot is rejected and not requiring that absentee ballots be counted the whole of Election Day means that there are voters who still will not have their voices heard, despite loosened restrictions on who is able to vote absentee.