‘Bombshell in Bridgeport brings questions about system’ | Rep-Am

September 25, 2023

Sampson: What we saw in Bridgeport, if proven true, is a crushing blow to the people’s confidence in our elections.


As published in the Republican American:


Fresh charges of absentee ballot fraud in Bridgeport are reigniting debate over the level of voting security and the extent of election tampering in Connecticut.


Defeated Democratic mayoral candidate John Gomes released riveting surveillance videos that his campaign believes show a city employee and Ganim campaign worker depositing multiple absentee ballots in a secured drop box outside the Margaret E. Morton Government Center a week before the Sept. 12 primary.


Gomes is asking a state judge to order a new Democratic primary or declare him the winner over Mayor Joe Ganim based on the allegations of absentee ballot fraud. 


A hearing on the extraordinary request for relief is scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday in Bridgeport Superior Court. 


The State Elections Enforcement Commission and other law enforcement agencies are conducting investigations of potential absentee ballot fraud and other election law violations connected to the Sept. 12 party contest.


BALLOTS: Calls to roll back relaxed voting rules surface


The bombshell fraud allegations in Bridgeport are being leveled as Connecticut is moving to greatly expand the use of absentee and mail-in voting in elections.


State voters will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment next year to authorize no-excuse absentee voting.

The political controversy is renewing calls to roll back recently enacted changes relaxing absentee voting rules and demands to adopt more stringent security protocols from Republican legislators and others who believe Connecticut is moving too rashly in that direction.


“We have continually made it clear that the expanded use of mail-in ballots and no excuse absentee ballots without the necessary checks for integrity is ripe for fraud. Unfortunately, this incident in Bridgeport illustrates why we continue to raise the alarm year after year,” said Rep. Gale L. Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, the ranking House member on the Government Administration and Elections Committee.


Under Connecticut law, people using a collection box to vote by absentee ballot must drop off their completed ballots themselves, or designate certain family members, police, local election officials or a caregiver to do it for them. This protects against so-called “ballot harvesting” by political operatives and others who collect and then drop off voters’ completed absentee ballots.


Supporters of expanded voting options are cautioning against a rush to judgment based on the leaked security video excerpts that Gomes campaign made public to support its claims of absentee voting violations.


“While this is concerning and has been an issue previously in Bridgeport, we must not extend this distrust to our absentee ballot system as a whole,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut. “Whether voting in person, early, or by mail, Connecticut voters can be certain their votes are counted safely and accurately.


Secretary of the State Stephane Thomas reaffirmed her confidence in Connecticut’s overall election security while she also said the public is correctly concerned and outraged over the disturbing video footage that the Gomes campaign released.


The video evidence from city security cameras looks like proof of wrongdoing to Gary Rose, a professor of politics and government and a scholar-in-residence at Sacred Heart University.


“I don’t know how you get around that. I don’t know how it can be denied or misinterpreted,” he said.


Rose, a frequent commentator on Connecticut politics, also believes a new mayoral primary must be ordered in Bridgeport.


“They have to have a primary again. They have to do it over,” he said.


Ganim has denied any wrongdoing by his campaign, and he has condemned any action to undermine the integrity of the election.


THE EXPLOSIVE BRIDGEPORT ALLEGATIONS have sparked, in the words of Ben Proto, the state Republican Party chairman, “a fullblown raging inferno” for Connecticut Democrats.


House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora Jr., RNorth Branford, is urging Democrats take action in a special legislative session Tuesday to suspend the use of secured drop boxes for collecting absentee ballots until allegations of fraud and irregularities in Bridgeport’s mayoral primary are fully investigated.


Mastrofrancesco and Sen. Robert C. Sampson, R-Wolcott, the other ranking Republican member of the Government Administration and Election Committee, have repeatedly voiced concerns about the expanded use of absentee ballots and the heightened potential for fraud.


Sampson said the leaked video footage that the Gomes campaign made public confirms his worst fears for how absentee ballots can be abused.


“Anybody can see this is the type of thing that happens when you don’t have the proper protections in place,” he said.


Sampson and Mastrofrancesco said Democrats have brushed off Republican concerns about of absentee ballot fraud as overblown, but the Bridgeport video validates the GOP demands for more election security.


“This is the first time somebody has really been caught on camera. It raises the question where else is this possibly going on that we don’t know about,” Mastrofrancesco said.


Sampson and Mastrofrancesco said Democrats have repeatedly rejected Republican bills and amendments to make absentee voting more secure, including prohibiting the mailing of unsolicited absentee ballots, verifying voter signatures, requiring voters include copies of photo identification with returned ballots, or placing ballot drop boxes indoors or in other locations that can be continually monitored.


The two Republicans said they are doubtful Gov. Ned Lamont and Democrats will now be open to Republican proposals following the latest allegations of absentee ballot fraud in Bridgeport.


“What we saw in Bridgeport, if proven true, is a crushing blow to the people’s confidence in our elections,” Sampson said. “Democrat voters in Connecticut’s largest city have potentially been disenfranchised. If we do not change our policy, our elections, both past and present, will be questioned.”


THE SUSPICIOUS VIDEO FOOTAGE troubles Democrats, too, and they say are open to taking actions, if necessary, to reinforce election integrity and reassure voter confidence.


“The videos are obviously extraordinarily troubling and, frankly, hard to watch as someone who cares about elections and election security,” said Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, the House chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.


Lamont said he found the video excerpts disturbing, and he is concerned that what was recorded not only calls into question the legitimacy of Bridgeport primary, but also adds to the cynicism surrounding the integrity of U.S. elections.

“I think if we have to tighten up any of the regulations to give people confidence, we will, but I just can’t jump to conclusions right now,” he said.


Blumenthal agreed, saying he is confident that the State Elections Enforcement Commission, the Superior Court and potentially criminal prosecutions will get to the bottom of what happened and rightly hold any wrongdoers accountable.

“If it is ultimately revealed that measures need to be taken on our behalf to correct gaps in the law, we stand ready to make them,” he said.


But Blumenthal said the legislature needs to wait on investigation and court findings to identify cracks and weaknesses in election laws before legislators make policy changes affecting the entire state and every voter.


“I don’t think we’re ready to say one way or the other what is necessary because we don’t know all of the facts,” he said. “The authorities that have the power and responsibility to getting to the bottom of what happened in Bridgeport have not gotten there yet.”


At the moment, the video excerpts that were made public are only suggestive of absentee ballots being improperly handled and returned and ballot harvesting, Blumenthal said.


He also argued many of measures Republicans proposed and continue to advocate would disenfranchise many voters. He further contended none of them would have made a difference in the Bridgeport primary based on the leaked video excerpts because of the existing laws against illegally handling absentee ballots and ballot harvesting.


“If it did happen in this case, then it appears it was caught,” Blumenthal said, “and, to me, we have a sacred duty to protect the ability and right of people to cast their ballots in a manner that is accessible, safe, secure and fair, and I certainly don’t believe taking drastic measures to reduce their ability to do that is the right thing to do in this situation given the facts we have.”


Thomas, the secretary of the state, had some ideas for shoring up election administration. One of the chief ones is increasing her independent office’s budget so more public outreach and civic education around voting and elections can be done.


She also raised the possibility of establishing a state election oversight board for towns and cities that have repeated issues running their local elections.


“The board can provide help, accountability and oversight for local election officials up to and including appointment of an election monitor to supervise the election administration in town,” Thomas said.


She said she believes passage of no-excuse absentee voting in Connecticut, coupled with the institution of early voting will increase voter turnout and reduce opportunities for election fraud. She said also she believes the mailing of absentee ballot applications to all registered voters would enhance election integrity.


One immediate action Democrats do plan to take is fixing a legislative gaffe that is holding up appointment of a special election monitor in Bridgeport.


The legislature approved funding for a Bridgeport election monitor, but the money was allocated to the State Elections Enforcement Commission, rather than the secretary of the state’s office, as had been done for the 2021 and 2022 elections in Bridgeport.


The legislature will vote in Tuesday’s special session to transfer the funds to the secretary of the state’s office and authorize Thomas to hire an election monitor for Bridgeport for the general election. Lamont included the item in a proclamation issued Friday to recall legislators to the state Capitol. Several other election-related measures are also on the agenda.