Safeguarding the integrity of Americans’ most precious possession — the right to vote in free and fair elections — was the running theme when Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill spoke to the Ridgefield League of Women’s Voters.
The right to vote has changed over the years, the decades, the nation’s nearly two and half centuries of independence — and Merrill began with a little background, addressing the League audience of about 40 on Saturday, June 1.
“It’s been a march toward more inclusivity,” she said.
Back in the founding fathers’ days, invitations to democracy’s party were for the privilaged.
“White male landowners were the only ones that could vote,” Merrill said, “and people fought their way in.”
Waves of the previously dispossessed have battled for and claimed the right to vote: those without property: freed slaves and their African-American descendents; and women.
Introducing Merrill, Ridgefield League of Women Voters President Marilyn Carroll touched on the league’s many planned events celebrating, mostly next year, the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, giving women the right to vote. (See related story).
“I’m at the point I could spend much more time with my six grandchildren,” Merrill, now in her third term as secretary of the state, told the League audience that included people from Ridgefiled, Wilton and Redding.
But she’s not eager to leave a position with oversight of Connecticut’s voting.
“Given where we are in American history,” she said, “there’s no place I’d rather be.”
Voting is a very decentralized business in Connecticut, Merrill said, organized by town or city with each jurisdiction having a Republican and a Democratic registrar of voters.
“We have 169 towns. Each town is charged with administering the election,” she said.
There are a lot of difficulties, not just in Connecticut but nationwide.
“We don’t even seem to be able to agree on what the problems are, never the solutions,” Merrill said.
Federal officials say 21 states had an “incursion into their voting system” in the 2016 election, she said.
“Mainly, Russians,” she added.
“The Mueller report reiterated and reaffirmed that it happened and continues to happen,” Merrill said.
But the federal government isn’t too free with the details — even to the secretaries of the state, charged with overseeing elections.
“The first thing we heard was almost a year after the election,” Merrill said.
Hearing 21 states’ systems were attacked, she wondered.
“My question: ‘Was it in Connecticut?’ And they said: ‘We can’t tell you. It’s classified information,’ ” Merrill said.
“Russia attempts to create distrust in our democracy,” she said. “…We are all vulnerable.”
Reassuring people that election results had not been tampered with, she said voting machines — not just in Connecticut, but everywhere in the United States — “are not connected into the Internet.”
Even electronic voting machines are insulated in this manner.
“You hear about ‘they have touch screens’ — none of those are connected to the Internet,” she said.
So, one nightmare — some hacker in the suburbs of Moscow changing vote totals electronically, without it even being known — can be dismissed. For now anyway.
But concerns about the integrity of the vote remain.
“The main issue that keeps coming up: Is there voter fraud? Are illegal people now able to vote?”
Merrill doesn’t see much real evidence.
“People are coming in, in person, presenting their ID. We’re sure they are who they say they are — they’re standing right there,” she said.
“There is fiction and fear on the side that says there’s massive voter fraud,” she said.
“This has been fanned by our president. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but not the Electoral College. Every time that comes up he says five million people voted illegally — there is no evidence of that.”
National Popular Vote Compact
Connecticut is among 15 states that have joined a National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, designed to reduce the chances of a president being elected by the quirks of the Electoral College system — winning enough states, but losing the national popular vote, as did President Trump in 2016, George W. Bush in 2000, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.
States set their own rules for allocating electoral votes. Most states are winner-take-all states, but two have their electoral votes cast in proportion to how their popular vote broke down.
Under the compact, states agree to throw their electoral votes to the national winner of the popular vote. The agreement takes effect only when states with enough electoral votes to assure a winner — 270 of the Electoral College’s 538 votes — have joined the compact.
“It did pass in Connecticut. We’re one of the 15 states,” Merrill said. “We’re at 190. We need 270.”
Merrill said she’s warned fellow Democrats that the compact is not simply a measure against Republicans winning while losing the popular vote.
“It could easily go the other way,” she said.
“Does the League have a position on the National Popular Vote Compact?” Merrill asked.
“We are for it,” said League President Marilyn Carroll.
Merrill wants user-friendly voting.
“Connecticut is one of the most restrictive states,” on voting rules, she said.
“My administration has sought to make voting easy — easy within limits.”
Connecticut voters have hometown polling places, but many states organize by counties.
“You can vote anywhere in the county,” she said — helpful if “you live in Ridgefield and work in Stamford.”
Current rules allow absentee balloting only when someone offers a good reason they can’t get the polls on Election Day. Merrill favors easier early voting.
“Thirty-nine states and (Washington,) D.C. have some form of early voting,” she said.
“Texas votes for a month,” she said, admitting that this seemed a little long. “Florida votes for 10 days. The average is 10 days.”
Merrill has been pushing legislation to make absentee balloting easier and early voting possible in Connecticut — but that will require amending the state constitution.
“The state constitution tells us we can only vote on that Tuesday in November.”
It’s been difficult getting Republican votes behind the measure, which sailed through the Democratic-controlled House.
“It’s become quite partisan in Connecticut,” she said.
It was approved, but not by enough for a constitutional amendment.
“It passed. It needed 75 percent,” she said. “… it did not get 75 percent.”
Merrill hopes to bring the question back before the legislature and get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2022 for approval of the general voters. “All of you are going to be voting on this,” she said.
Connecticut did pass a law in 2011 allowing “Election Day registration.”
There’ve been some problems, particularly in college towns.
“We’ve had problems in New Haven — with a little place called Yale,” she said. “Maybe 1,000 student showed up.”
Election officials weren’t prepared for such a turnout.
“There were four-hour lines for voting,” Merrill said. “To me, that’s like taking away someone’s right to vote.”
Mansfield also had problems, with large numbers of UConn students.
Totals have been boosted by allowing people to register as voters when doing business with the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“We’ve had 300,000 new voters registered between 2016 and 2018,” she said. “And most are coming through the DMV,” Merrill said.
“These kids are ready to go, and they did vote. They didn’t just register.”
During questions and answers at the end, an audience member worried about this, saying her son had been asked to register as a voter when he got his driver’s license, even though he wasn’t yet 18 — though there was, she said, later notification that the registration was invalid due to his age.
Merrill, a Democrat, and also Wayne Floegel, Ridgefield’s Republican registrar of voters, both assured the crowd that there is a system in place which weeds out people who are too young but have managed to register through the DMV. Both agreed it might be simpler not to allow the registrations in the first place.
Merrill wants more people — legally registered— voting.
“I really believe to my core these things are terribly important,” she said. “The more people participate, the better off we are.”