House clears absentee ballots for fall elections
HARTFORD — On a day when as many as 2,000 people in seven different groups paraded around the Capitol but couldn’t get in, and technical difficulties delayed the House of Representatives for about 90 minutes, lawmakers on Thursday easily approved legislation to allow no-excuse mailed-in ballots for the November election.
But action on a controversial package of Black Lives Matter-related police reforms was still under negotiation deep into the evening, with the legislative microscope on an emotion-provoking section that would shift more civil liability to individual officers found to have committed wanton brutality. While Republicans were unified against the provision, Democrats, who have a 90-61 majority, were split.
Finally, around 11 p.m. Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, prepared to introduce the entire police-reform package, with the controversial immunity provision, which would sink or swim on the reaction from the Democratic majority. The bill, which included a ban against chokeholds, a new inspector general to investigate incidents of police violence, and more oversight, was expected to be debated deep into the night and early morning.
An anticipated amendment to strip out the controversial section was on track to be introduced, and Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter said they weren’t sure whether it would pass. But they expected emotional responses, particularly from Black lawmakers who are using this moment to attempt major strides against racially fueled encounters with police.
“There is a desire on the part of many folks to include it in the bill,” Stafstrom said in an interview. He said the latest draft of the bill stresses that police who are sued individually would still be entitled to indemnification and defense by towns and cities unless they are found to engage in “willful and wanton” misconduct.
“That wasn’t explicit in the last draft of bill, but that’s current law,” Stafstrom said. “This will hopefully give comfort and educate the public. We’ve now incorporated that in the current draft of the bill. Also under the current draft we made clear that if officers acted in good faith, they are required to be indemnified by their towns.”
Stafstrom blamed “confusion and misinformation” about current laws requiring municipalities to pay the price for police misconduct as the reason why some lawmakers had doubts about the bill.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said that if the immunity section remains in the bill in any form, her 61-member caucus would not support it.
“This, unfortunately, has become an issue of, if you support police, then you don’t support people being treated fairly,” Klarides said. “If you support people being treated fairly, you don’t support police. I think that not only you can support both, you must support both.”
“People get sued when they are accountable,” said Michael Oretade, of the Hartford-based Black Lives Matter 860, while nearby, Hartford and Capitol police were keeping a small group away from confronting the much-larger police group. “That’s how it should be. That’s why we have a justice system. Justice.”
A few minutes later, Andrew Matthews, a retired state trooper who is now executive director of the Connecticut State Police Union, used a bullhorn to lead about 300 off-duty police massed outside the Capitol’s south entrance.
“Vote Them Out,” said the crowd, many of whom did not have face masks and most of whom wore police-themed T-shirts and carried several so-called thin-blue-line flags. “They require us to respond to situations that may require deadly force, yet you expect us to defend and protect others with the thick overcast of liability hanging over our heads,” Matthews said “That’s unfair,” Matthews shouted, and his supporters picked up on the chant. “That’s unfair.”
Mathews predicted that many law enforcement officers will quit or retire if the section of the bill passes.
Municipal officials, whose jobs are also indemnified to handle lawsuits for job-related behaviors, are concerned that the bill would create further costs and result in high local taxes.
“The proposed police accountability bill includes a number of significant reforms that COST supports to address issues involving police misconduct to ensure that all individuals are treated equally under the law and with respect and compassion,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.
“However, eliminating qualified immunity for police officers will expose municipal employers to significant potential liability, dramatically driving up municipal insurance costs,” she said.
Several competing and overlapping rallies lasted throughout much of the day, including Black Lives Matter, unionized health care union workers, the American Civil Liberties Union, school teachers and Republican-backed opponents of election fraud.
State Capitol Police reported that by about 10:30, the total crowd peaked at about 1,500 people.
In the Capitol building, by 12:23 p.m., the technical glitches seemed to have been overcome, and debate began on a telehealth bill that would expand and require insurers to cover virtual visits, which have become commonplace in the coronavirus pandemic. It passed in a unanimous 145-0 vote less than an hour later.
By 1:20, debate began on legislation to provide for absentee ballots for the November elector for any voters who fear that going to the polls could affect their health in the pandemic. Two hours later, debate continued as Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to prevent plans by the Secretary of the State to send absentee ballot applications to every registered voter.
Then there was a delay of about 90 minutes when there was a massive failure of the House audio system, but a final vote on the voting measures took place at about 6:30. The bill finally passed 144-2, with dissent limited to two Bristol lawmakers who said their local officials would have a hard time handling a mountain of absentee ballots.
Outgoing Minority Leader Klarides used her summing-up speech on the voting legislation to potentially launch a bid for the 2022 governor’s race, stressing the need for lawmakers to address other issues beyond the narrow focus of the one-day special session focused on coronavirus and Black Lives Matter issue that will send bills to the Senate for action next week.
“We have over 700,000 people that have filed unemployment,” she said. “We have businesses that have closed that haven’t opened again and will never open again. We have businesses that have opened and may not last. We have people out of work. We have lost family members. We have lost friends. I am proud of what he have done as a state.”
She agreed that Lamont’s executive orders in the pandemic have been necessary and helpful.
“But what concerns me is the inconsistency in regards to that,” she said, moving to the day’s business. “These bills were chosen, but why wasn’t other bills chosen that also could have helped 3.5 million people in this state?” She criticized the recent contractual raise of $300 million for unionized state employees.
“We have a financial crisis in this state now,” she said, pointing at Lamont and the Democratic majority. “If the governor was not willing to do it, this legislature should have been willing to do it.”
This set off Majority Leader Ritter.
“I don’t know of anything that surpasses in my mind how important it is to be allowed to vote in this country,” Ritter. “Generally speaking, all the things we talk about that you could have added to the special session, flow from having elections and sending people up here. So the 151 people who sit here can’t vote on any bill if they aren’t elected. Having fair, safe elections, to me, is the cornerstone of our democracy.”
He said next year Democrats will focus on approving a constitutional amendment for universal mail-in balloting. In the many executive orders during the pandemic, Lamont allowed mail-in voting for the August 11 primaries. Under usual state law, absentee ballots are limited to people who are sick, or out of town working, in the military, or have religious conflicts.
“This obsession over the COVID-19 changes, I’m just confused,” Ritter said, reviewing failed GOP amendments that would have prevented the secretary of the state from mailing out ballot applications. “You can go online and download an application and print it. You can go to town hall and sign out applications and give them to your friends and neighbors. They’re mailing applications, they’re not mailing ballots.”
Around 6:30, debate began on a bill to cap insulin costs at $25 a month. Ninety minutes later it passed 142-4.
Then the House recessed for caucusing the final version of the police legislation.
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