In Georgia, Democrats are accusing the secretary of the state of blocking tens of thousands of black people from voting. In New Haven Sunday, women working turn out the black vote heard a promise from Connecticut’s secretary of the state that she’ll help bar the door to voter suppression here.
Denise Merrill made that promise on Sunday afternoon during a New Haven campaign stop in her bid to be re-elected for a third term as Connecticut’s secretary of the state, which is the state constitutional office that oversees and administers elections.
Merrill, a Democrat, joined Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont, Democratic treasurer candidate Shawn Wooden, and Republican attorney general candidate Susan Hatfield for a non-partisan, pre-election candidate forum hosted by the New Haven Alumnae of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
The latest entry in the local black sorority’s ongoing political conversation series brought around 40 attendees to the ground floor meeting room at Mill River Crossing, the new public housing complex formerly known as Farnam Courts at 657 Grand Ave.
At a time when black sororities, particularly in the South, are ramping up their voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in advance of the midterm elections on Nov. 6, the Elm City Deltas walked floor by floor through Mill River Crossing on Sunday afternoon, registering residents to vote. Delta soror and Elm City Communities Executive Director Karen DuBois-Walton said the group will also be walking Grand Avenue on Wednesday, registering Fair Haven residents to vote.
“Those efforts you’re hearing about about voter suppression,” Merrill told the sorors and public housing residents and assorted campaign staff present on Sunday afternoon, “it’s real. And you are not gonna see that in Connecticut while I’m on the job.”
Merrill said that she has spent her past eight years as secretary of the state trying to make it easier, not more difficult, for Connecticut citizens over 18 years old to vote.
In 2012, she helped pass a bill legalizing online voter registration in Connecticut. In 2016, she successfully pushed for state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) employees to be required to ask all visitors if they want to register to vote or if they want to update their voter registration information while they apply for drivers’ licenses, learner’s permits, and other state identification cards.
She said that one of her proudest accomplishments during her 17 years in the General Assembly before her current tenure as secretary of the state was passing a law that requires all Connecticut high school students to take a course in civics before they graduate.
“The bottom line for me is that the more people who are participating in our society, the better off we all are,” she said. “And the more people coming out to vote and who feel included, the better off we all are.”
In recent years, she said, she has seen a number of states, including Kansas, Georgia, Florida, and Indiana, pass laws designed to limit voter participation.
This has become an increasingly popular strategy by Republican-controlled states in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which overturned a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required states with histories of voter disenfranchisement to get federal approval before they make any changes to their voter laws.
Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of the state and its Republican gubernatorial candidate, successfully pushed for a law that required prospective voters to show “proof of citizenship” during registration. A federal judge permanently struck down that Kansas state law earlier this year, saying that it presented an undue burden that ultimately prevented tens of thousands of eligible voters from registering.
Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of the state and its current Republican gubernatorial candidate, has closed more than 200 local voting precincts throughout the state since 2012. Kemp has also stalled more than 50,000 voter registrations of disproportionately black voters in an election where he is running against a Democratic candidate, Stacy Abrams, who is vying to become the country’s first ever black female governor.
“I believe we should make it easier to vote,” Merrill told the Deltas on Sunday, “not more difficult, as you have seen in many other states right now. … We are all about trying to make it easier for every citizen who’s 18 years old to be able to vote. It’s your right.”
Fortunately, she said, Connecticut has seen a surge of registrations since President Trump’s election in Nov. 2016. Specifically, Connecticut has seen over 275,000 new voters added to the rolls in the past two years, including over 81,000 new Democrats and over 43,000 new Republicans.
If reelected, Merrill said, she will push legislation that would allow 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote.
“When you invite people in and you make them feel part of something,” she said, “it’s much more likely that they’re going to be part of things and they’re gonna come out and vote when they do turn 18.”
She said she will also try again to pass an early voting measure that would allow Connecticut residents to vote sometime before the first Tuesday of November. She said that 39 other states currently allow for some kind of early voting. A constitutional amendment advocating that very measure failed to win enough votes when it made it onto the general election ballot in 2014.
Bethel A.M.E. Church Rev. Steven Cousin asked Merrill if she thinks that voter suppression measures like Georgia’s “exact match” law will ever come to Connecticut. That law bars registered voters from casting their votes if there is even the smallest discrepancy between their names as listed on their government-issued IDs and their names as listed on the vote rolls.
“Absolutely,” Merrill said. “And that’s why you need to send me back. It’s a very serious issue. I have been on the national forefront of trying to stop these things.” She said that, as a former president of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), she has helped deliver testimony to Congress about the democratic dangers of such stringent “cross-check” systems like the one used in Georgia.
Delta Sigma Theta soror Regina Mullings asked how Merrill’s office can better communicate with people returning to society from prison about their rights to vote.
“The biggest work we need to do is making sure people understand they have their right back,” Merrill said.
In Connecticut, she said, people returning from prison regain their rights to vote once they have finished serving their prison sentences and once they are no longer on parole.
Merrill said that she has supported, and will continue to support, legislative measures to restore the vote to ex-offenders who are still on parole.
“I think anyone who’s back in the community should have their vote restored,” she said. She said that her office currently works with the state Department of Correction (DOC) to put voter registration cards in people’s exit packages, and that one of her employees is charged with training probation officers to reach out to the re-entry population to let them know about their rights to vote once they are done with parole.
“It’s all about asking people in,” Merrill said. “People have to feel that someone wants them in.”
Susan Chapman, the Republican candidate for secretary of the state, did not attend Sunday’s forum.
Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch Merrill’s, Wooden’s, and Lamont’s full conversations with the Deltas. Click here to register to vote.
Republican Hatfield: “I’m Pro-Choice”
The sole Republican to show up at Mill River Crossing on Sunday was Susan Hatfield, a state prosecutor who is running against Democrat William Tong to replace outgoing Democratic Attorney General George Jepsen. Tong did not attend Sunday’s forum.
Hatfield pitched her candidacy to the Deltas not as a hardline conservative who has stood behind President Trump’s separation of migrant families at the border, opposed sanctuary cities, and criticized gun control initiatives, but as a compassionate conservative who left her job as a registered nurse to become a lawyer after talking with a friend about that friend’s difficulties getting insurance companies to cover her sick child’s treatment.
She told the group that she was the first prosecutor in the state to receive a conviction for the crime of human trafficking. She spent over a decade working as a mental health nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital, even after she became an attorney.
“I stood up and fought for women in the domestic violence arena,” Hatfield said, “and I plan to focus on Connecticut and do what’s right and fair and really focus on the law and let the law be my guide.”
She pledged to work closely with whoever wins the governor’s office, whether that be Democratic candidate Lamont or Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski or third-party candidate Oz Griebel.
Luretha Tolson, the co-chair of the Deltas’ social action committee, asked Hatfield what role she sees the attorney general’s office playing on the issues of gun control, reproductive rights, and civil rights protections.
“I believe in following the law,” Hatfield responded. “It doesn’t matter whether I agree with the law. I, as attorney general, will follow the law, just like I have been doing as a prosecutor since 2005. I treat people fairly and with respect and let the law be my guide, as opposed to politics.”
Local Democratic stalwart Christine Bartlett-Josie, who is heading Wooden’s campaign for treasurer this year, said that Hatfield’s response did not answer the question about how she would act as attorney general on the issue of women’s reproductive rights. Bartlett-Josie said she is particularly concerned about a state attorney general’s stance on the issue in case the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“As a nurse I don’t believe that the government should be involved in a decision-making process between a patient and a woman,” Hatfield responded. “As a woman, I support Roe v. Wade.” Hatfield also pointed out that a women’s right to an abortion is codified in the state’s constitution.
“So if federal law changes,” Bartlett-Josie continued, “what would your position be?”
“I’m pro-choice,” Hatfield responded.
Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch Hatfield’s full conversation with the Deltas.