Despite the various election issues — especially voting rights — that have been in the national headlines, Denise Merrill is sanguine about their state of play here.
“Connecticut I consider to be pretty well settled,” she told the Business Journal. “We’re in a good place.”
Although she did not say that that opinion played a part in her decision not to run for a fourth term in 2022, announced late last month, the outgoing secretary of the state gave the impression that she believed the issue is for all intents and purposes solved. Instead, she expects to remain involved with the movement — mostly Democratic — to franchise all voters on a national level.
Merrill has been a strong advocate for a pair of state initiatives that would allow for early voting, which will likely be on the 2022 ballot, and for no-excuse absentee voting, expected to be on the 2024 ballot after Republican lawmakers opposed its inclusion for next year.
Both measures will require amending the state’s constitution, and can be viewed as part of the national debate over how and when voters can cast their ballots — an issue that gained traction last year when Covid-19 threatened to derail the election cycle.
“People were frantic about not being able to vote,” Merrill said of the 2020 process, “which was so fraught. Remember, in March and April of 2020 people were being told, ‘Do not leave your house, especially if you’re a vulnerable person.’ They were trying to avoid going out of their houses at all.
“But if all you have is one day of voting and you have to do it in person unless you meet certain exceptions in the constitution — that didn’t work for a lot of people,” she continued. “That’s why the governor and I took action and the governor issued the executive order that included Covid as a sickness under the constitution (allowing absentee voting).”
The result: A record 1.86 million residents, roughly 80% of registered voters, casting ballots in the Nov. 3 contest, including about 659,000 absentee ballots.
Not that it was all smooth sailing. Merrill’s decision to mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter ahead of time was the cause of both criticism and confusion.
“There were a lot of questions,” she acknowledged. “‘Why am I getting this?’ ‘What is this thing?’ But you get applications for credit cards in the mail all the time. It doesn’t mean you’re being forced into getting a credit card. It wasn’t as big a deal as some people made it.”
Some states have allowed voting absentee or by mail “for years and years,” she added. “I have a brother in Colorado who told me, ‘I can’t imagine what all the fuss is about.’ They’ve done it by mail for years, and nobody seemed to notice or mind.”
Merrill also has little time for the aspersions being cast upon the U.S. electoral system.
“This is a very perilous time for the nation,” she said. “I never thought I’d see a time when people distrusted an American election with no real reason.
“Of course,” she continued, “when President Trump lost the election, you had all these people who didn’t think he should have.”
That situation has been exacerbated by attempts by other nations to influence the elections of 2016 and 2020, she said. It was for such reasons that she was instrumental in establishing and chairing the Connecticut Cybersecurity Task Force in 2018.
Merrill said she believes the cyberattacks are not so much to sway opinion toward one candidate over another as they are to “sow mistrust. There’s an incredible amount of misinformation on the internet, which just gets people frantic. I don’t even call it ‘misinformation’ — lots of it are downright lies. Some of the craziest, wildest theories are out there and people are sometimes just not that discerning.”
The fear is that “people will feel that elections don’t matter and their votes don’t count,” she said. “That has an influence on absolutely everybody.”
The outgoing secretary said she is also proud of Business One-Stop, the modernized online system that streamlines processes at one central location for building and running a company that will officially be launched next month.
“When I came into office (in 2011) everything was still being done on paper,” Merrill said. “There was shockingly little being done online.”
Business One-Stop will allow a user to login once, whereupon they receive a number that can be used throughout the database. The idea is to link it to the Department of Revenue Services, Department of Consumer Protection, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and others “so that their systems can work with ours.”
Efforts to improve the state’s “clunky” online registration system has taken years, she said, “but now it’s finally been completely overhauled.”
Updating clunky systems is nothing new to Connecticut government — the Department of Labor famously ran into numerous snafus in the midst of its own updating when the flood of unemployment claims came in during the early days of Covid — but Merrill is confident that what emerges will make for a much more streamlined, pleasant experience.
She further noted that “we have a very elderly group of employees” in her office. “Something like 60% are eligible for retirement over the next two years. That’s an opportunity to operate using fewer people with higher skills.”
The 72 year old doesn’t necessarily include herself in that cohort, as she has repeatedly said she’s simply not running for re-election, not retiring. In addition to her voting rights efforts, she hopes to encourage more women to get involved with government.
“About a third of the General Assembly is women, which is the highest it’s been for many years,” she said. “But if we’re half the population, we should be half of those who represent the people.
“It’s difficult, because (women) still don’t necessarily see themselves in those types of leadership roles,” she continued. “They lack the confidence or feel they lack the skills.”
Involvement with such organizations as the Campaign School at Yale, Merrill said, “can help give women the skills they need to run — fundraising, public speaking, how to access the resources you need to run a successful campaign.”
Merrill’s own 30-year-career in politics began with an unsuccessful campaign for Mansfield’s school board, though she later joined it by appointment, “and I haven’t lost an election since,” she laughed.
That path included representing the 54th district (Mansfield and Chaplin) in the statehouse for 17 years, rising to the rank of House Majority Leader from 2009-2011, and serving as House chair of the Appropriations Committee from 2005-2009; as vice-chair of the Education Committee from 1994-1999; and as a member of the Government Administration and Elections Committee from 1995-1997.
“I was always interested in politics as an advocate, starting in the ’70s,” she said, noting that she grew up near San Francisco at a time when the environmental movement was in its first full flowering.
Contrary to some reports, Merrill said she hadn’t seriously considered stepping down from secretary of the state until a few months ago.
Of her June 23 announcement that she would not stand again, she said: “People had started asking me about it, and since I’d made the decision I thought it was only right to announce it. Other people ought to get the chance to decide if they want to run for the office and the public needs the opportunity to vet people.”
Although her official statement said, “While I’m not running again, I am not retiring,” it did not specify whether she might run for some other office.
“No,” she said. “I’ve spent 30 years doing this and I feel I need to use my time and energy in other ways. That includes helping to get the voting amendments passed and nationally being a part of addressing voting rights and other election issues.”