Connecticut Leading the Way on Voting Rights

March 21, 2012

Published in The Connecticut Mirror.

Earlier this month was the 47th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, one of the most important and infamous moments in U.S. civil rights history. The story is familiar to many of us: a peaceful march in support of black voting rights ends in violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Local policemen attack nonviolent demonstrators with nightsticks and tear gas. The nation watches. Then, just months later, President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act, striking back against the discriminatory voting practices that prompted the march on Selma in the first place.

If only the story ended there.

Over the past year, state lawmakers around the country have been rolling back some of the gains that voters of color have achieved in the voting rights arena since the 1960s. Several states, including Alabama, have passed restrictive new voting laws -- such as strict voter ID requirements -- that will likely hinder many voters' access to the ballot box. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that this wave of new restrictions could make it harder for more than 5 million people to vote in future elections.

Fortunately, however, even as some states continue their push for regressive voting laws, Connecticut lawmakers are working to advance a more progressive voting rights agenda. The General Assembly is currently considering two bills, proposed by Gov. Dannell Malloy and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, that would make voting more accessible in Connecticut, bucking the national trend. The first bill (GB 5022) would strengthen existing penalties for voter intimidation, while the second (GB 5024) would help modernize Connecticut's voter registration system by allowing citizens to register to vote online.

The proposed legislation would also allow people to register to vote on Election Day --an important reform that has helped many states improve voter turnout. This policy would not only help first-time voters by giving them the chance to register and vote on the same day but would also provide current voters with a critical opportunity to correct errors in their registration status. For example, a registered voter whose registration address is not updated when she moves from New Haven to Hartford could update her registration address at the polls on Election Day instead of being forced to either cast a provisional ballot or vote at her old address.

These new reforms are a big step forward for Connecticut's voting system. But the General Assembly can take an additional step to make these reforms even stronger.

Specifically, the General Assembly should repeal the state's antiquated "voter challenger" law. This 140-year-old law allows private citizens to walk into the polls on Election Day and contest other voters' eligibility to cast ballots. Since these challengers are not required under Connecticut's current law to produce evidence to substantiate their challenges, the process is susceptible to abuse. In recent years, political operatives in other states have used laws like this to harass and intimidate voters, often in communities of color.

This is precisely why a federal appeals court recently upheld a longstanding consent decree explicitly prohibiting the Republican National Committee from using voter challengers in a discriminatory way. The court noted that even though many voters could legally overcome challenges to their eligibility, challengers can still disenfranchise many lawful voters by causing delays, crowding and confusion inside the polls and creating a charged partisan atmosphere that can intimidate new voters.

The General Assembly can prevent these problems in Connecticut by ensuring that only trained election officials -- and not private citizens -- are allowed to challenge voters at the polls. This modest change to the state's existing law would bolster lawmakers' current efforts to prevent voter intimidation. Moreover, it would be an easy fix: the Brennan Center proposed a model challenger law amendment at a public hearing two weeks ago.

This reform is long overdue. Connecticut originally enacted its voter challenger law in 1875, years before the state adopted the secret ballot, a computerized voter registration database, or various other legal safeguards that perform the same function of the challenger law -- namely, preventing ineligible voters from casting ballots. Today, however, the law is virtually obsolete.

Thus, as Connecticut takes important steps to modernize its voting system, it should dispense with this relic of 19th century elections and help make voter intimidation itself a thing of the past.