Mail-in balloting easily passes state Senate

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven speaks outside senate chambers during special session at the State Capitol, Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven speaks outside senate chambers during special session at the State Capitol, Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Jessica Hill / Associated Press

HARTFORD — The state Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved legislation to allow mail-in voting for the Nov. 3 presidential election for voters who want to avoid crowded polling places during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bridgeport, was the lone dissenter in the 35-1 vote after he criticized a culture of absentee ballot shenanigans in his hometown, particularly remembering an election he lost when 60 votes were recorded from an empty lot.

Although the bill was on-track to be easily approved, conservative state Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott wasn’t going to let the imminent action get in the way of his arguments against the legislation. The ranking member of the Government Administration & Elections Committee, he warned that tampering and election fraud could be encouraged by the statewide distribution of absentee ballots.

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, and Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport pushed back against the charges during the first of four debates scheduled for the business day, including a wide-ranging police accountability bill that forced an all-nighter in the state House of Representatives last week.

Flexer, who recently gave birth to a girl, used her newborn as a way to stress the need for mail-in balloting during the coronavirus pandemic that has caused concern among many state residents who are afraid to go into crowded places such as polling place.

“They know that that is the most-important duty that they have as American citizens,” Flexer said.

Voters, she said, will not have to choose between the health of themselves and their families, and their right to vote, if the bill passes.

The Democratic majority in the Senate is 22-14, which was identical to the vote against Sampson’s first amendment, defeated an hour and 20 minutes after the debate started. During votes, senators entered the chamber from their caucus rooms a few at a time, touched the voting buttons on their desks, then returned to their Capitol offices.

Custodial crews regularly cleaned surfaces in the Senate during the afternoon.

Current state law limits absentee ballot eligibility to people who are actually ill, out of town on business, in the military or have a religious conflict. During the early stages of the pandemic, Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order allowing for mail-in balloting for the August 11 Republican and Democratic primaries. The bill, which is expected to be signed by the governor, would allow people who are afraid of becoming ill to use absentee ballots in November.

Sampson criticized the tactic by House leaders who adjourned the special session last Friday morning after the passage of the last bill, giving the Senate no choice but to either approve or defeat the four bills as written and approved in the House.

“That concerns me, because there are changes I would like to see made to this bill,” Sampson said, who still planned to submit amendments. “I am going to support this bill anyway,” he conceded, after Haskell took over the lead of the debate. “The public should realize that this bill is not just about allowing people to vote based on having COVID-19 as a concern and being able to obtain an absentee ballot. It is really chock full of unrelated and even contrary items.”

Sampson questioned whether the bill is actually needed.

“What this legislation addresses is the folks who haven’t been diagnosed with COVID-19,” Haskell said. “Perhaps they’re immuno-compromised. Perhaps they are elderly. Perhaps they’ve just been watching the news and are fearful about entering into a crowded polling location. “People are thrilled about the opportunity to vote from home,” said Haskell, vice chairman of the committee.

“State policies seem to indicate that it is safe for at least some people to gather as long as they are wearing a mask and remain socially distant?” Sampson asked Haskell.

“Just because something is safe for some, does not mean that it is safe for all,” Haskell said. Sampson’s two amendments failed.

Bradley said he was worried about corruption. “Very oftentimes there is manipulation, trickery and full-out deception in the absentee ballot process,” he said. He said that absentee ballot procedures have reached “dysfunction” levels in Bridgeport. “We have to protect the electoral process in this country.”

Last fall, Bradley, a lawyer, represented a city employee in the court case challenging Mayor Joe Ganim’s Democratic mayoral primary victory over state Sen. Marilyn Moore.

Even supporters of the bill had critiques, stressing that it is only going to be in effect for the November election.

“With I support this bill I am not satisfied with it,” said Sen. Alexandra Kasser, D-Greenwich, adding that local officials won’t be allowed to start counting the results of absentee ballots until the morning of Election Day. “This bill will last less than 100 days and in only limited circumstances,” she said.

"This should be a first step, not a last step however,” said Secretary of the State Denise Merrill after the vote. “According to recent polling, there is a broad and bipartisan consensus - Connecticut voters want to be able to vote more conveniently, through Early Voting and No-Excuse Absentee Ballots, every year, not just in 2020, just like the voters in 43 other states.”

But overall, leaders said it is a step toward wider voter reforms to be discussed in the 2012 legislative session. “This bill has been a long time coming,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “In this pandemic, it only makes it more important that we get this done today,” he said. “We’re in very unprecedented times right now so it’s important for us to listen and lead.”

“The reality is our people are frightened,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. He called Lamont’s earlier executive order “reasonable and prudent” and needs to be extended to November, as Lamont’s emergency powers will expire in September.

But Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, disagreed with Secretary of the State Merrill’s decision to send applications for absentee ballots to every registered Republican and Democrat in the state in advance of the primaries. “There’s a problem tracking these,” Fasano said. “There are people who are going to be disenfranchised by her actions, not our actions.”

Voting on the bill, following the three-hour debate, was delayed because Flexer, the new mother, drove home a half hour a way to tend to her infant. While waiting for her to return, Senate began debate on a bill that would expand coverage for telehealth services. When she returned, the first vote was the telehealth legislation, which passed 35-0.

By 5 p.m., the Senate had completed the third of four bills, legislation that would lower insulin costs for diabetics, capping prices at $25 a month. The bill passed 35-1 with Sampson the lone vote against the measure. All three head to Lamont for final action.

The most controversial bill, on police accountability was on track to be debated later in the afternoon or evening. Twitter: @KenDixonCT