By Denise Merrill
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2018
As the first constitutional convention got under way in August 1818, the issues around the voting franchise were, like many other constitutional issues in Connecticut, late in coming. In 1638, it was settled practice, if not quite explicitly stated, that only men and only “electors” had the right to vote on leadership in the Connecticut colony. The colonists derived their practices from British common law—meaning that rights were settled by court precedent. Until the rise of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, there had been little in the way of challenge to the idea that only land-holding males could vote. That all changed rather suddenly with the 1818 Constitutional Convention and its documented debates.
The call for a constitution was the result of a radical reform of the early 19th-century—the Congregational Church would no longer be “institutionalized” in law and government in Connecticut. That may seem wildly obvious to us today, especially after the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights declared in 1787 that there was to be separation of church and state in the new United States, but it was still practice in Connecticut.
There was virtual one-party rule in Connecticut up to the early 1800s. The majority Federalists kept a tight hold on control of the government through a series of laws that favored incumbency. The Federalists also favored the status quo of who was allowed to vote: namely, white male landowners.
The Democratic-Republicans (pro-Jefferson, not to be confused with the present-day Republican Party) were the party of reform that sought to recognize people of other faiths, saw that the Federalists were trying to maintain the dominance of the Congregationalists, and were able to gain significant political support from those who were tired of being taxed to support a church to which they did not belong.
The measure of who was a “freeholder” for purposes of being eligible to vote was based on ownership of “$7 worth of property.” It doesn’t sound like much today, but by 1817 the number of white males who could qualify to vote was estimated to be as low as 10 percent in some towns according to Wesley Horton in Connecticut’s Four Constitutions (1989). By interpreting laws in such a way as to restrict the franchise, Federalists sought to maintain control of the state. It certainly worked: In the 40 years following 1784, Connecticut had just three governors, each of whom each served at least 10 terms!
The Democratic-Republicans supported suffrage reform. One of their chief reform platforms was the expansion of the vote to include men who were not property owners. Their argument was based in part on the fact that many of the men who had fought both in the Revolutionary War and in the War of 1812 were not property owners. “If they can fight for our country, surely they should be eligible to choose the leaders who send them to war.” Sound familiar? It was identical to the argument used during the Vietnam War to enfranchise 18 year olds who were old enough to be drafted but not old enough to vote.
Democratic-Republican bills to extend the franchise to white males beyond landowners in 1802 and 1804 failed, but the idea that those beyond landowning (rich) men could vote took hold. The national Democratic-Republican Party also included the idea as they fought to extend their reach. Still, the spirit of reform came at a cost to the increasing number of free black men (slavery was still legal in Connecticut) who met the qualifications to vote. In 1814 Connecticut passed a law limiting the vote to white males. (See “Rights For All?,” page 38.)
After significant debate during the constitutional convention, including a remarkable proposal by Judge Stephen Mix Mitchell of Wethersfield to remove the words “white male” from the definition of who should be able to vote—which was voted down—the following provision was adopted:
Every white male citizen of the U.S., who shall have gained a settlement in the state, attained the age of twenty one years, and resided in the town in which he may offer himself to be admitted to the privilege of an elector, at least six months preceding and have a freehold estate of the yearly value of seven dollars in this state; or having been enrolled in the militia, shall have performed military duty therein for the term of one year net preceding the time he shall offer himself for admission, or being liable thereto, shall have been, by authority of law, excused therefrom; or shall have paid a state tax within the year next preceding the time he shall present himself for such admission; and shall sustain a good moral character; shall, on taking such oath as may be prescribed by law, be an elector.
The seeds of our modern voting procedure and franchise were sown: It represented a significant victory for the reformers, allowing both those who had been in the military and those who paid taxes to vote.
But even with these reforms, there was still no ability for anyone to cast a vote unless they appeared in person on a specific day specified by the Connecticut General Assembly. In 1862 a statute allowing soldiers in the Civil War to vote by absentee ballot was passed but struck down by the Connecticut Supreme Court. So in 1864 an amendment to the state constitution was passed (Article XIII) that allowed soldiers to vote by absentee ballot, but that provision would “cease and become inoperative and void upon the termination of the present war.”
The issue did not re-emerge in the constitution until 1932 (an allowance for absentee voting was passed during World War I by the legislature, despite the lack of an authorizing constitutional amendment), when an amendment (Article XXXIX) was passed with the language that we see in the current constitution of 1965, virtually unchanged with the exception of the provision regarding religious exemptions:
The general assembly may provide by law for voting in the choice of any officer to be elected or upon any question to be voted on at an election by qualified voters of the state who are unable to appear at the polling place on the day of election because of absence from the city or town of which they are inhabitants or because of sickness or physical disability or because the tenets of their religion forbid secular activity.
At the time this was clearly a substantial liberalization of the process of absentee voting, which up until this point had been allowed only for a very brief time and only for those serving in the military.
Over time constitutional amendments shifted more authority for changes in voting regulations to the legislature. Several amendments addressed and gave to the legislature authority over laws about who qualified as electors—particularly in the case of those convicted of crimes. But the occasional amendments to the constitution during the last 200 years have been virtually silent on the subject of whensomeone could vote; nor have any provided additional flexibility as to howsomeone could vote.
Connecticut once again lags other states in allowing more opportunities to vote. Despite major changes in society, including increased mobility, modern methods of electronic and telegraphic communications, and demographics, along with a massive cultural shift around workforce patterns, the provision for absentee voting remains virtually unchanged from the 1932 amendment that established the reasons a citizen in Connecticut can vote without being physically present.
Statutory law provides even more restrictions on the process for absentee voting. For example, an application for an absentee ballot must first be obtained from the local town clerk. The voter must then fill out the request, send it back to the town clerk, receive the actual ballot, fill it out according to a certain timeline, and send it back by Election Day.
In most other states today these requirements have been either substantially or completely eliminated. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have established either in-person early voting, no-excuse absentee balloting, or some combination of the two. In the Oregon, for example, the large majority of citizens vote by mail: essentially universal absentee balloting. Several other states are following suit as part of a new wave of reforms to make voting more convenient and easier for every voter, particularly with today’s typical hectic schedules. Other reforms include expanding days of voting, sometimes up to a month before the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November deadline that is required by the U.S. Constitution for federal elections.
It would appear that Connecticut retains its reputation as the “Land of Steady Habits” earned so long ago. The radical idea that the franchise should be expanded and easily executed made its debut at the Constitutional Convention of 1818.
Two hundred years later we are still fighting to make voting easier. In 2014 a complicated constitutional amendment that would have allowed the legislature to implement both early voting and vote-by-mail was narrowly defeated by voters—after having passed in the legislature.
In the last two legislative sessions I have proposed a constitutional amendment to allow the legislature to implement a brief period (between three and five days) of early voting within two weeks of the election. In each session the amendment has passed the house of representatives but failed to be called for a vote in the senate. The idea of relaxing the limits dictating when voting can be held is one whose time has come, and I expect that early voting will continue to come before the legislature until, in our grand democratic tradition, the voters are allowed to decide.
Denise Merrill is Secretary of the State of Connecticut.