Lawsuit seeks to toss Bridgeport primary as calls grow for tougher absentee ballot laws
Following an explosive video showing potential absentee ballot tampering in Bridgeport, a new lawsuit is seeking to overturn last week’s Democratic primary.
Mayoral candidate John Gomes filed the suit on Tuesday. He lost to seven-term incumbent Joe Ganim, whose 251-vote win was fueled by absentee ballots.
“The reliability of the result of the election is seriously in doubt,” the lawsuit reads.
Gomes is asking a judge to declare him the winner – or hold a whole new election. A judge will consider Gomes’ preliminary injunction request at a hearing next Monday.
A leaked security camera video appears to show two people stuffing stacks of absentee ballots into a drop box in front of the Margaret Morton Government Complex. Gomes’ lawsuit is asking for two weeks’ worth of surveillance footage – from all four of Bridgeport’s ballot boxes.
In a state election complaint, the Gomes campaign identified the woman in the video as Wanda Geter-Pataky, a longtime City Hall employee and Ganim campaign volunteer. She declined comment on Monday.
In a statement Monday, Ganim responded: “I want to state unequivocally that I do not condone, in any way, actions taken by anyone including any campaign, city, or elected official, which undermines the integrity of either the electoral process or city property.”
This latest scandal is renewing calls for tougher absentee ballot rules across the state.
“This is a systemic problem that has affected Bridgeport for generations,” said Gemeem Davis, president of Bridgeport Generation Now, an election reform group that endorsed Ganim’s last opponent.
Davis said Connecticut's laws are too easy to exploit – especially since campaigns are allowed to distribute hundreds of ballot applications at senior centers and public housing complexes.
“We have heard stories about people saying that they would lose their public housing. We've heard stories from seniors who say that people come to them and promise them groceries,” said Davis. “Restrict political operatives and campaigns and candidates from accessing absentee ballots – period. End of story.”
Recently, the State Elections Enforcement Commission recommended criminal charges for Geter-Pataky and two other Ganim staffers over their handling of absentee ballots in the 2019 primary. That year, a judge found “serious election law violations” but ruled they weren’t enough to overcome Ganim’s margin of victory.
Judge Barry Stevens also urged Connecticut lawmakers to tighten absentee ballot rules.
TOUGHER BALLOT RULES?
State election officials have been hesitant to make changes, fearing lower voter turnout. But Monday, Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas said she’s open to having the conversation with lawmakers.
“I do have that note about the absentee ballot availability as something to discuss next session,” she told reporters.
But Republican leaders are demanding immediate action. Some want to suspend all ballot drop boxes during next week’s special legislative session.
“It was always a concern that these drop boxes break the chain of custody of these absentee ballots,” said state Rep. Vin Candelora (R-North Branford), the Connecticut House GOP leader. “You're not handing it to a person. You're not putting it into U.S. Mail with a return address.”
The state Republican Party chair is calling for tougher penalties.
“It is time for Gov. Lamont, Mayor Ganim, [Connecticut Democratic Party] Chair [Nancy] DiNardo and the Democrat leadership in the General Assembly to call for stricter punishment and actual jail time and larger fines for individuals who attempt to manipulate elections and destroy voters’ confidence in our electoral process,” said Connecticut GOP chair Ben Proto. “Confronted with the issue and my call to increase penalties for these violations, [they] did what Democrats are now programmed to do. She screamed TRUMP.”
EARLY VOTING COMING
Things may improve next year, when in-person Early Voting begins. Instead of voting by mail, voters will finally have the option of heading to the polls for 14 days, including weekends.
Gov. Ned Lamont is suggesting a wait-and-see approach to new laws.
“If we have to tighten up the regulations to give people more confidence, we will,” he said on Monday. “But I just can't jump to conclusions right now.”
For now, Davis wants lawmakers to approve a state monitor for Bridgeport’s November election.
“They can be looking at absentee applications as they come in,” she said. “They can be looking at absentee ballots as they come in.”
The city had a monitor until this year, when it was left out of the new state budget.
Longer term, Secretary of the State Thomas also suggested “instituting a Municipal Election Accountability Board for towns that have repeated issues.”
The panel could be similar to the Municipal Accountability Review Board, which can take over a troubled community’s finances. MARB recently did that in West Haven, after an employee stole more than $1 million in COVID relief funds.