CT lawmakers Made Some Changes After Bridgeport Absentee Controversy. Other Reforms were Ignored

May 14, 2024

From the CT Insider:

HARTFORD — Just months after a mayoral election in Bridgeport became fodder for a national debate over election security, Connecticut lawmakers on Wednesday gave final passage to a series of reforms intended to clean up some of the worst abuses that have been alleged in recent political campaigns.

Some skeptics, however, say the changes do not go far enough.

The bipartisan legislation, H.B. 5498, included a slew of provisions bolstering election security, including a shorter time period for campaigns to make mass requests for absentee ballot applications and mandatory video surveillance of drop boxes. Additionally, it aims to expedite referrals of suspected instances of fraud to prosecutors, along with other technical changes to the ways of casting and counting ballots.

The bill passed both chambers without a single dissenting vote on its way to Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat who is expected to sign it.

In the final days of the legislative session, however, Republicans lamented the lack of movement on more aggressive measures that they argued were necessary to stop the recurring issues that have dogged elections in Bridgeport.

Their proposals included a bill to impose a mandatory minimum one-year jail sentence for election crimes that was spiked by Democrats in the Judiciary Committee last week, as well as repeated calls to end campaigns’ ability to “harvest” ballots by mailing voters unsolicited ballot applications, and then keeping track of which voters turn them in.

Beyond policy changes, lawmakers declined to send more money to bolster the staff at the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which has struggled to manage its current caseload, according to executive director Michael J. Brandi.

“There are always groups of folks who are happy with what we have done, and then there are folks who are like we could have done more,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “I think we know that because we are forced to compromise on things all the time.”

The push to address election security this year began following an incident last September in which a Bridgeport city employee and supporter of Mayor Joe Ganim was filmed appearing to illegally stuff ballots into an election drop box. As a result of the ensuing scandal and a related lawsuit, Ganim’s narrow primary victory over challenger John Gomes was thrown out in court, resulting in a do-over election that Ganim ultimately won in February.

It was hardly the first time that an election in Bridgeport was plagued with absentee ballot fraud. Similar allegations involving supporters of Ganim’s 2019 mayoral campaign resulted in a referral to prosecutors last August, though no charges have been filed.

Ganim has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of his supporter’s actions. In response to the September video, he called for lawmakers to completely ban the use of ballot drop boxes — a suggestion that also went unheeded by Democrats.

“We still do not have any significant changes in policy in this state regardless of all the news coverage and the attention surrounding the Bridgeport fiasco,” said state Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, a top Republican on the legislative committee with oversight of elections law.

As Democrats rushed to push the election security bill through the Senate ahead of Wednesday night’s deadline, Sampson delayed the process with a series of five amendments to resurrect the proposed mandatory one-year jail sentences for election crimes, end the unsolicited mailing of ballot applications, increase post-election audits and require signature verification and photo IDs for absentee ballots. Democrats beat back each of the amendments in quick succession.

Speaking to reporters the following morning, Gov. Lamont said he was satisfied with the efforts by the legislature to respond to the Bridgeport scandal. Lamont was also dismissive of requests for additional staff and resources at SEEC, saying the commission needs to adjust its approach to investigating fraud.

“They bring a lot of charges for people who don’t have a receipt for a ham sandwich,” Lamont said. “I’d like them to pay special attention to big issues, and I think Bridgeport is at the top of my list.”

A spokesman for SEEC did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

In testimony submitted to lawmakers earlier this year, Brandi, the commission’s director, was broadly supportive of the reforms proposed by Democratic lawmakers, in addition to the mandatory minimum sentences proposed by Republicans.

Brandi also came out in support of a bill that would have moved campaign finance reports for municipal officials onto a online filing system operated by SEEC, however the legislation faced some Republican opposition and ultimately died in the House.