CT Insider: CT Republicans seek tougher election fraud penalties, ballot boxes removed

September 28, 2023

By: Ken Dixon

Republicans in the General Assembly’s special session on Tuesday will point to the State Elections Enforcement Commission’s investigation into allegations of irregularities in Bridgeport’s recent Democratic mayoral primary and may propose changes to Connecticut election law, including the removal of outdoor ballot collection boxes as well as tougher penalties for absentee ballot fraud.

As GOP leaders on Monday contemplated issues to raise, particularly their longtime opposition to the collection boxes, Democrats plan to use their hefty majorities — 98-53 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate — to reject the proposals, which would be attached as amendments to several election-related bills, including a change in campaign finance reporting rules that is also opposed by the SEEC.

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, on Monday dismissed the GOP criticism, stressing that Bridgeport’s investigation is isolated in a state where expanded mail-in opportunities have made it easier to cast ballots.

The SEEC is investigating four complaints filed by supporters of Bridgeport mayoral candidate John Gomes, who lost the Sept. 12 primary to incumbent Joe Ganim by 251 mail-in and absentee votes.

One of the complaints alleges Wanda Geter-Pataky, vice chair of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee and city employee, offered to help a voter obtain subsidized housing in exchange for a vote for Ganim in the primary.

Citing the complaint, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, during a regular weekly appearance on local WICC AM radio, said the special session, originally focused solely on moving up the state’s presidential primary from April 30 to April 4, has now expanded into a variety of other election issues.

The SEEC is also investigating two referrals from Bridgeport police. One of them is involves municipal video footage showing a woman placing items inside the absentee ballot box outside the Bridgeport downtown government center. In a complaint filed with the SEEC and during a news conference, Gomes and his campaign have alleged the woman in the videos is Geter-Pataky.

“In order to make sure that we take that opportunity away, we have to move those boxes inside, if not suspend the use of these absentee ballot drop boxes until we can get a system that is going to maintain the integrity of the process,” Kelly said. “What we’re seeing now that’s coming out of Bridgeport is not only a video, but now there’s a follow-up to that story, that now actually there were attempts to get ahold of rental rebate participants, Section 8 participants, basically very vulnerable individuals who are looking for governmental assistance are now being used as an opportunity to harvest the votes.”

Kelly said the Democrats’ response has been inadequate to the Bridgeport election issues, including in June when the SEEC referred the names of three people associated with Ganim’s 2019 campaign to the chief state’s attorney’s office for further investigation into that year’s primary.

“I think there’s a difference in the way the parties are responding to this,” Kelly said during the seven-minute radio interview. “While the Democrats are providing lip service, they’re not putting any laws in place to make sure that the one-vote, one-person constitutional rule is upheld, and when that happens there’s voter suppression and civil rights violations. We have an opportunity to do something. I think the Republicans are going to give them the opportunity to put their money — their outrage — where their mouth is and to vote for ways to tighten up this process and to remove the opportunities for corruption that currently exist.”

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said Monday his caucus hasn’t yet discussed what may be pursued on Tuesday, but at least a temporary suspension of the use of collection boxes, hundreds of which have been placed in front of town and city halls throughout the state, should come up for discussion on the House floor, in light of the Bridgeport video.

“The collection boxes have always been a concern for Republicans,” Candelora said in a phone interview. He stressed the need for strengthened penalties for misusing absentee ballots. “These charges always get pled down to suspended sentences,” he said. “We have to have a conversation about when we talk about elections, we talk about ballot fraud and prison time.”

Looney said that overall, the recent local elections went smoothly.

“Primary elections were held in 25 different towns on Sept. 12,” Looney said. “Of those 25, only one town had an alleged problem with the use of its absentee ballot box: Bridgeport. So, there is objectively no problem with the use of absentee ballot boxes in Connecticut. There is a problem with the use of absentee ballot boxes in one Connecticut city, which represents only 5 percent of the 2.5 million voters registered in the state. I would be opposed to limiting ballot box access to more than two million Connecticut voters because of the alleged actions of just a few people — one of whom has already been recommended for prosecution.”