Republicans cast doubt on bill targeting Bridgeport ballot scandal

Connecticut’s top elections official pressed for sweeping election changes on Monday – an effort to address Bridgeport’s ballot stuffing scandal.

John Craven

Mar 18, 2024, 9:20 PM

Updated 26 days ago

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Connecticut’s top elections official pressed for sweeping election changes on Monday – an effort to address Bridgeport’s ballot stuffing scandal.
But during a hearing on Monday, Republican lawmakers voiced skepticism that the proposals will actually stop the city’s long history of cheating allegations.
BALLOT STUFFING VIDEOS
Bridgeport’s ballot scandal drew national attention last fall, and forced voters to head back to the polls twice.
A judge ordered a new Democratic primary for mayor after “shocking” videos showed Mayor Joe Ganim's campaign workers stuffing stacks of papers into absentee ballot drop boxes. In Connecticut, only voters, relatives, caregivers and law enforcement can cast ballots.
Ganim also accused his opponent, John Gomes, of mishandling absentee ballots.
On Friday, Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas announced a new round of election complaints in Bridgeport – including campaign workers accused of paying for votes.
STATE TAKEOVER BILL
Now, state lawmakers are taking action.
Thomas asked the Legislature’s Government Administration and Elections (GAE) Committee to support two sweeping proposals. One bill could lead to a full state takeover of local elections.
“I maintain my overall confidence in our elections,” she said. “But there are always ways to make the system better.”
The proposal creates a new Election Accountability Board that, in the most serious cases, could actually take over any community’s elections. It would be similar to the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB), which recently took over West Haven city finances after a COVID funds embezzlement scandal.
TOUGHER ENFORCEMENT
Critics say campaigns keep cheating because election investigations can take years.
“We’ve got an individual who was accused, and ultimately referred for prosecution, for misconduct in an election more than four years ago," said state Rep. Matt Blumenthal (D-Stamford). “And it took more than three years for the State Elections Enforcement Commission to refer that individual for prosecution.”
The legislation would give SEEC a 90-day deadline to refer criminal cases to prosecutors.
“Our hands are tied if a law isn't being broken, or if there's no judicial intervention,” Thomas told lawmakers.
MORE EYES ON BALLOT BOXES
Another bill would require every ballot drop box in Connecticut to have a camera – that the public can view on a website.
Local governments are worried about the cost.
“We are concerned that the bills under consideration by the GAE committee will impose costly burdens on municipalities, including costs associated with installing and monitoring cameras by ballot boxes,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST). “Rather than impose additional burdens on municipalities, the state should enact stronger measures to punish individuals that engage in election fraud.”
But Gov. Ned Lamont said the changes over overdue.
“I think we ought to take a look at it. You know, this has gone on too long,” he said on Friday. “I was a little surprised to see the person who was accused of ballot fraud just re-elected as vice chairman of the party there.”
WILL IT WORK?
Republicans argued that the proposals don’t go far enough.
“The board is good; it’s oversight. You know, I get it,” said state Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco (R-Wolcott). “But I don’t see anything in here that’s going to deter them from doing it again.”
GOP lawmakers want to remove all outdoor ballot drop boxes, and require at least one year in prison for election crimes.
“I don’t think we’re addressing the problem at all,” said state Sen. Rob Sampson (R-Wolcott). “We keep making these steps to expand the authority and power of government, but we’re not going after the problem.”
Democrats said the new accountability board is a way to target cities like Bridgeport, with a history of serious issues, without punishing voters across the rest of the state.
“We’re not talking about fraud in the sense of someone impersonating someone else,” said Blumenthal. “We’re not talking about someone submitting votes that are illegitimate.”
THE BRIDGEPORT PROBLEM
In Bridgeport, most complaints involve campaigns handing out thousands of absentee ballot applications – and sometimes pressuring or even bribing voters.
“We’ve also heard stories of intimidation, where it’s, ‘If you don't do this – if you don't vote this way, if you don't vote for who I say – your renter’s rebate might be in jeopardy," said Callie Heilmann, with Bridgeport Generation Now, an election reform group.
While the proposals limit when campaigns can check out absentee ballots, they’re not cut out of the process altogether.
“I believe these things should be out of the hand of political parties, political candidates,” Thomas said. “But what I am against, is a removal of one system without the substitution of another.”
WHAT’S NEXT?
Whatever lawmakers decide, the clock is ticking. The GAE committee must vote on all three bills by next Wednesday. You can sign submit written testimony here.


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