HARTFORD, Conn — Easier absentee voting and an outdoor dining option at restaurants — two public health ideas enacted early in the COVID-19 pandemic — are on track to be extended after clearing the state House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The House voted 126-16 in favor of a bill that includes the broad term of “sickness” as a valid excuse for requesting an absentee ballot, aligning state law with the existing language in Connecticut's constitution. The “sickness” excuse would apply to the individual voter's health or someone else's health, such as an ill relative.
Advocates for the elderly and other at-risk groups have voiced support for such a measure, saying many residents remain concerned about themselves or family members contracting COVID-19 and want to make sure they have an option to vote by absentee. Earlier provisions that specifically allowed COVID-19 to be a valid excuse to request an absentee ballot have expired.
“The state statutes are more restrictive than the constitution and these changes will allow an increase in voting options by voters — options that, over the last several elections, voters have demonstrated they want to be able to avail themselves of,” said John Erlingheuser, associate state director for advocacy and outreach at AARP of Connecticut, in recent testimony before the Government Administration and Elections Committee.
Meanwhile, the House also voted 121-21 in favor of another bill that extends a law that broadly permits the continuation of outdoor dining and retail until April 30, 2023. It's set to expire on March 31.
“When we started this process, we were responding to something that was unknown, that was a challenge for businesses across the state, particularly our restaurant industry, which was hit very hard,” said Rep. Joe Zullo, R-East Haven.
“We’re here and we’re in a little bit of a different place,” said Zullo. “We’re not quite to the 9th inning, but maybe we’re just beyond the 7th inning stretch, and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Businesses are opening up. Our economy is beginning to recover, but we still have some restaurants that are struggling.”
Some Republicans voiced concerns about both bills during Wednesday's debate. Several said they worry that municipal control over a zoning matter is being overruled by state law. Others questioned the need for making changes to the state law concerning absentee ballots.
“It’s in my mind a back doorway to get into no-excuses absentee voting,” said Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott. “It opens up the door for ballot harvesting because everybody is eligible for absentee ballot because of sickness.”
In a unanimous opinion issued in February 2021, the Connecticut Supreme Court determined that the term “sickness” is not limited to an individual voter's illness. The court also determined it included specific diseases, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
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