State takeover for Bridgeport elections? Lawmakers considering it

It's one of several drastic measures that state lawmakers are considering to address election security.

John Craven

Mar 14, 2024, 10:08 PM

Updated 34 days ago


Bridgeport could face a total state takeover of its elections after last fall's ballot stuffing scandal. It's one of several drastic measures that state lawmakers are considering to address election security.
But critics wonder if the changes are enough to stop years of cheating allegations.
Bridgeport's ballot scandal drew national attention last fall. But for voters, it only confirmed what they have long suspected.
"There's definitely rigging going on," said Kathleen Ceccarelli. "No question about it."
Dorothy Simon, of Bridgeport, added: "I don't think they're at all fair."
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 has acknowledged that his campaign staff "violated the election laws," but insists he knew nothing about it.
"I'm embarrassed, and I'm sorry with what happened with the campaign," Ganim told WICC-AM in December. "Granted, I had no knowledge of what was going on."
Ganim ultimately won re-election last month, after voters went to the polls four times. The woman at the center of the ballot controversy – Wanda Geter-Pataky – celebrated at his victory party.
The scandal is now leading to action at the state Capitol.
"Those videos were extraordinarily disturbing," said state Rep. Matt Blumenthal (D-Stamford), co-chair of the Legislature's Government Administration and Elections Committee.
Lawmakers are considering three different proposals to address election security.
One bill creates a new Election Accountability Board that, in the most serious cases, could actually take 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.
But cities are wary of letting the state take over their elections.
"While the recent Bridgeport election has certainly raised concerns, we also think that ongoing investigations should be concluded before deciding what steps are needed to ensure the integrity of the election process," said Randy Collins with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. "Allowing the state to take over the complete administration of local elections is something that needs to be carefully considered."
Another bill would require every ballot drop box in Connecticut to have a camera – that the public can view.
Gov. Ned Lamont supports the idea.
"We've got the cameras on the ballot boxes," he said on Monday. "I think that revealed some of the folks that were allegedly stuffing this."
But 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."
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," he said. "And it took more than three years for the State Elections Enforcement Commission to refer that individual for prosecution."
If Blumenthal's legislation passes, SEEC would have a 90-day deadline to refer criminal cases to prosecutors.
Republicans want to go even further. Their bill would require a mandatory one-year prison sentence for election crimes.
"We absolutely have to have a legitimate deterrent as well, as far as criminal penalty," said state Sen. Rob Sampson (R-Wolcott), the top Republican on the GAE committee.
Election reformers applauded the measures, but said they don't go far enough.
"It's a good start," said Callie Heilmann, with Bridgeport Generation Now.
Heilmann said campaigns need to be banned from the entire absentee ballot process.
"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," she said.
Blumenthal said lawmakers want to tighten up election security without disenfranchising voters.
"We don't think the punishments need to be increased necessarily," he said. "We think investigation and enforcement needs to happen in a timely fashion."
Bridgeport voters are skeptical that the state could conduct an election better than the city can.
"I don't know if I trust that either," said Simon. "Somebody has to be overlooking something."
Ganim's office did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
The GAE committee will hold a public hearing on two of the bills next Monday. You can sign up to speak or submit written testimony, here.

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