By Jaden Edison of CTMirror.org and John Schwing

“Shall the Constitution of the State be amended to permit the General Assembly to provide for early voting?”

Voters in the Nov. 8 elections will be asked that ballot question — and the answer could lead to the most significant change in Connecticut’s election laws in decades.

Connecticut is an outlier when it comes to allowing early voting. It remains one of only four states that does not permit voters to routinely cast ballots, in some format, before a designated election day. (In Connecticut, only people eligible to cast an absentee ballot have the option of voting prior to Election Day. Those eligibility rules were broadened somewhat during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The three other states that prohibit early voting — Mississippi, Alabama and New Hampshire — have decidedly different political cultures than Connecticut’s “progressive” reputation.

Early voting is permitted from three days to 45 days in other states, allowing tens of millions of voters — even in places with conservative reputations like Florida, Georgia and Texas — to already cast ballots this year, according to the University of Florida’s U.S. Elections Project. 

And this year’s midterm election turnout is on pace to match 2018’s, which saw some of the highest turnout in U.S. history, in large part due to early voting.

The early voting initiative is strongly supported by the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, whose nonpartisan goal is to expand access to as many voters as possible.

“We can vote on only one day, and we want to expand that,” said Westport LWV President Celeste LaCroix. Statistics show that states with early voting record a higher percentage of citizens who vote, she said. “More people vote the more days there are.”

“Change comes very slowly to Connecticut,” Laura Smits, president of the state’s League of Women Voters, agreed. “We don’t like change, and we fold our arms and say, ‘Not for me. I’ve done it this way for 100 years, and why can’t we keep doing it this way for 100 years?’ And I just think that that same malaise that we see throughout the country is changing, and a lot of folks are not happy about it.”

Any changes to Connecticut’s election laws, which are spelled out in the state Constitution, first must be passed by the state House of Representatives and Senate with three-fourths majority support, or a simple majority in both chambers in two successive legislative terms, and then win majority support among voters. 

This year marks the second time the early voting measure has made it onto the ballot. The first attempt failed by more than 38,000 votes during the 2014 midterm.

Westport voters, however, backed the proposal by a wide margin that year, casting 5,565 ballots in favor to 3,480 opposed.

Political observers attributed the 2014 rejection of early voting to confusion, uncertainty about giving the state legislature more power, and racial and partisan divisions, according to the Hartford Courant. Early voting then was grouped with no-excuse absentee voting, a different convenience measure that allows for any voter to request and cast an absentee/mail ballot without an excuse.

Voting access has remained a hot-button topic this year.

At a League of Women Voters candidate forum in Westport last week, the candidates for local state House of Representatives seats were divided on the early voting initiative along partisan lines — Democrats were in favor, Republicans opposed.

During an October Secretary of the State debate, Democratic candidate Stephanie Thomas, a state representative whose district includes Westport, said she is “a big fan” of early voting. Republican contender Dominic Rapini called the measure an “unfunded mandate” on registrars of voters who run the local elections.

In Connecticut, the status quo is concerning to some Black and Latino voters, who have historically borne the brunt of voter suppression and who nationally experience longer wait times than white voters. 

The state has a history of making voting more difficult for people of color. 

Connecticut once received a series of petitions from Black people pleading for either the right to vote or exemption from paying taxes (the General Assembly denied them); was the first to require literacy tests for voting (effectively barring people who could not read from the ballot box); was slow to outlaw literacy tests (an order that trickled down from the federal government when the Voting Rights Act was amended), and was slow to ratify the 19th Amendment (which granted some women access to the polls). 

Other states have offered expanded voting access for decades. 

Jennifer Doinoff, an elections administrator in Texas, the first state to offer early in-person voting, according to Time magazine, told the CT Mirror that she recommends that Connecticut codify a detailed plan into law.

“I’m a supporter of early voting, but I think that it’s very long,” said Doinoff. Texas currently has two weeks of early voting. 

“We add days to it and then we add weekends to it. And then we want to add more hours in the day to accommodate everybody’s schedule,” she added. “And then, eventually, you can’t find people to do it. And it also is cost exhaustive. So I believe in early voting, but I think that we have to come up with a plan. That is a reasonable expectation for the people that we employ to do these jobs.”