CT Insider: Bridgeport investigation takes center stage in Connecticut special session

September 28, 2023

By: John Moritz

HARTFORD — An unfurling election investigation in Connecticut’s largest city is took center stage in the State Capitol on Tuesday, as lawmakers meet to hash out several changes to the state’s election laws.

Originally scheduled for the purpose of confirming a state Supreme Court justice and adjusting the spring primary calendar, Tuesday’s special session later expanded in scope to include a number of technical matters, including fixing a drafting error in the state budget that has delayed the appointment of an election monitor in Bridgeport.

That list of policy items were included in a nine-page bill released by legislative leaders early Tuesday, which Republicans soon sought to amend by adding a ban on the use of absentee ballot drop boxes as well as mandatory one-year prison sentences for criminal violations of the state’s election laws.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, ruled that two of the Republican amendments were not germane to the narrow set of topics on the agenda for the session. The speaker did allow third amendment, which would have specifically barred any drop boxes from upcoming elections in Bridgeport, but it was roundly rejected on a party-line vote.

In the Senate, a string of amendments to the state’s absentee ballot process were similarly rejected by Democrats in the majority.

“The one question for today that’s going to come up is, do you take a wrecking ball approach and ban everything for everybody else, or do you try to use a more of a scalpel approach to deal with a situation that I think we all agree is serious,” Ritter told reporters just before lawmakers kicked off their debate.

Both the House and Senate ultimately passed the unamended election bill to Gov. Ned Lamont, who is expected to sign it.

Outside of Bridgeport, the biggest outcome from Tuesday’s legislation is the shift of Connecticut’s presidential primary from the last Tuesday in April to the first, joining the states of New York, Rhode Island and Delaware on the primary calendar. Leaders in both political parties supported the moves as part of an effort to draw greater interest from presidential campaigns as they swing through the Northeast.

Lawmakers had originally planned on shifting the primary date when they met in Hartford this spring, but their bill died on the Senate floor on the final day of the session.

Legislative leaders likely avoided a more contentious debate during their one-day session on Tuesday by agreeing to drop an item from their agenda that would have cleared the path for online fundraising platforms such as ActBlue and WinRed to operate in Connecticut.

That measure drew criticism from both Republicans and non-partisan election watchdogs, who argued that the proposed change would have weakened the state’s public campaign financing system.

On Tuesday, Republicans further sought to criticize the majority’s response to the chaotic aftermath of this month’s Democratic Primary election in Bridgeport and the release of surveillance footage showing purporting to show a city employee placing items in a ballot drop box. Republicans described the video as the latest example in a long list of election controversies that have played out in Bridgeport, Hartford and other cities.

“What’s more important in a democracy than the vote?,” asked Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford. “Now we have a video that shows potential abuse. The majority doesn’t want to do anything before the November election. The majority has no will because the current system works for them.”

Democrats, meanwhile, urged a more cautious response to the swirling allegations in Bridgeport, which are now subject to lawsuits and a police investigation.

One of the leaders of the committee with oversight of election measures, state Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, argued that the proposed ban on drop boxes was being rushed and had the potential to disenfranchise scores of voters.

“We still need to know exactly what happened in Bridgeport, or what did not happen in Bridgeport, in order to respond,” Blumenthal said.

In a complaint to the State’s Election Enforcement Commission, Bridgeport mayoral candidate John Gomes has claimed that footage posted online shows a woman identified as Wanda Geter-Pataky placing items in an absentee ballot box outside the government center. Gomes ran against incumbent Mayor Joe Ganim in this month’s primary, losing by several hundred votes.

Geter-Pataky, who works in the government center and is vice chair of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee, was placed on paid administrative leave Sept. 18 pending an investigation, according to a city letter sent to her. The letter did not specify why she is being investigated.

Bridgeport police said they are looking into the videos and sent the footage to the SEEC to investigate. Police have not said whether Geter-Pataky is being investigated or whether they have interviewed her.

Hearst Connecticut Media has not been able to reach Geter-Pataky and someone who responded to a Ring doorbell at her home declined to comment. Hearst Connecticut Media has also not been able to confirm the authenticity of the videos.