The Connecticut Senate on Tuesday sent a bill to the governor’s desk that will allow all voters to cast their ballots in November by absentee, making COVID-19 an acceptable excuse for not voting in person at the polls. The lawmakers were also expected to take up a wide-ranging police accountability bill, sparked by the death of George Floyd and other Black people.
Both Democratic and Republican senators said they have heard from many of their constituents who are fearful about going to vote in the General Election, given predictions that Connecticut might see another spike in coronavirus infections this fall. State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson, co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said she related to those concerns, noting she felt anxious about leaving her newborn baby at home to attend Tuesday’s debate during a continuing pandemic. But Flexer said it was her obligation, just like voting is the obligation of her constituents.
“It is something that is unique to this year, and this year’s circumstances and recognizes the overwhelming majority of Connecticut voters want to exercise their right to vote this year without fear for their health and safety,” Flexer said.
The absentee ballot proposal expands the list of reasons why people can vote by absentee, which currently includes excuses such as being out of town during voting hours or being an active member of the armed services. Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont previously signed an executive order allowing fears about contracting COVID-19 to be an excuse for voting by absentee in the Aug. 11 primary, but his authority ends before the general election.
Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, the ranking Senate Republican on the GAE Committee, echoed concerns raised last week by House Republicans about language in the bill that requires town clerks to allow special state-authorized drop boxes for absentee ballots outside town halls, some of which remain closed to the public because of the pandemic. He speculated the ballots could somehow be damaged or tampered with.
“This is something that has been brought to my attention by a great number of my constituents,” he said. Sampson proposed an amendment to strip the language regarding the ballot boxes, but it failed on a 22-14 vote.
The bill ultimately passed on a 35-1 vote, with Sen. Dennis Bradley, D-Bradley, casting the lone “no” vote. He raised concerns about past ballot irregularities in his city.
Senators also voted 35-0 to give final legislative approval to a bill that expands the types of health care providers that can offer telehealth services and requires certain insurers to cover the cost. The measure expires in March, prompting senators to promise they’ll return next year to make the legislation permanent, noting the popularity and necessity of telehealth medical visits during the pandemic. They also approved another bill that would cap the price of insulin and other supplies and medications for diabetics.
The most contentious bill of the day was expected to be the police reform bill. Last week, it drew hundreds of protesters, including police officers from across the state who opposed various sections of the bill, including a provision that would in some cases limit immunity protections for officers. The number of protesters was far fewer on Tuesday. Valerie Horsely, a scientist and professor at Yale University, was among those who turned out for both.
“I do think that there needs to be stronger accountability for police officers,” Horsely said. “When doctors, nurses, midwives make mistakes in the hospital and it causes the death and they’re in the wrong, we hold them accountable and we allow malpractice. And that’s really how I see the qualified immunity.”
As with the House debate, the public and lobbyists were not allowed inside the state Capitol on Tuesday. Only a limited number of people were on the floor of the 36-member Senate, with most senators listening to the debate in their offices or in a larger meeting room. Senators then returned to the chamber, a handful at a time, voted by pressing a button on their desk and were then ushered out of the Senate. The House, which has 151 members, had allowed its members to vote by computer in their legislative offices.