The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)
Lawmakers promote bill aimed at increasing voter turnout
HARTFORD — State lawmakers joined voting rights advocates Tuesday in promoting legislation aimed at enhancing election turnout, especially among minority communities and non-English speakers.
Advocates said that Black and Latino communities also face obstacles, including longer lines at polling places, limited access to mail-in balloting and problems in alerting them when district lines or balloting locations change.
A lack of assistance for Spanish-speaking people, who represent about 12 percent of the state population, has resulted in a passive form of voter intimidation, said state Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., D-Waterbury. “The state of Connecticut is a progressive state, has some progressive values, but is very restrictive when it comes to voting,” Reyes said during a news conference in the Legislative Office Building. “It’s past time for us to expand the voting rights.”
Last year, acting on new U.S. Census numbers that showed a shift of population from the eastern half of the state to the western side of the Connecticut River, a bipartisan group of General Assembly leaders redrew nearly all 36 state Senate districts and 151 House districts.
“We are actually confusing voters when they go to the polls,” said Reyes, the former chairman of the legislative Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “What happens typically when we send a voter to polling place A and they move, they don’t know their rights that they can actually vote there. So, they actually go home and don’t vote at all. Our job as legislators in the state of Connecticut is to make it easier for people to vote, not harder.”
Reyes acknowledged that it may be too early to determine whether the new district lines after the 2020 Census are an impediment. “Redrawing districts confuses voters,” he said. “People that don’t speak English as their first language but want to exercise their right to vote have every right to go there and be able to get it explained to them in their native tongue, if it happens to be Spanish. I will be very frank. Some places are accommodating, others are not.”
Reyes said that if approved, the proposal, named after the late U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis, could make Connecticut a national leader in ballot access.
“Connecticut needs to be a beacon of light when it comes to the right to vote,” said state Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, cochairwoman of the Government Administration & Elections Committee, which is in the process of drafting legislation to enact the amendment to the state Constitution approved on Election Day that will allow for early voting each election season.
“Over the last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has systematically disemboweled the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the crown jewels of the civil rights movement and legislation that people marched for, advocated for, were beaten for, some like John Lewis nearly died for it,” said state Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the GAE Committee. “Some, like Medgar Evers, did die for it.”
“It just seems to me to make sense that we provide language assistance for people who don’t speak English and that we have equal application of the laws whether you live in Bridgeport or West Hartford or Bozrah or any town in this state,” said Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, who in recent years has introduced the legislation.
Jess Zaccagnino, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said that nationwide, voting rights are under the greatest threat since the height of the Jim Crow era that essentially prohibited minorities communities from voting. “Now that the Voting Rights Act has been gutted by the Supreme Court, it is not hyperbole to say that communities of color have less voting access protections than they had in 1965,” she said. “Connecticut has a long and shameful history of disenfranchising voters of color, particularly Black and Puerto Rican voters.”
Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas recalled a story from a local voting official in Norwalk about people who are essentially scared to go vote because they don’t know what to expect because their first language isn’t English. “So these are the types of voters that we’re trying to help,” she said. “So whether it’s early voting, absentee voting or Election Day voting, everyone is entitled to the same access to the ballot.”
A public hearing on the proposals will be scheduled by the Government Administration & Elections Committee.
The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate this year expect to approve legislation that would put a question on the statewide ballot in 2024 that would change the state Constitution to allow no-excuse mail-in balloting.