Vote 2022: Secretary of the State candidates clash over voter fraud in only debate
Is voter fraud a major problem in Connecticut? As in other states, election security led to a heated clash in the only debate for secretary of the state on Tuesday night.
The secretary of the state is Connecticut’s top election official. Democrat Stephanie Thomas and Republican Dominic Rapini faced off on Connecticut Public Television in their first and only matchup.
Election security is dominating campaigns across the nation, with potential implications for the 2024 presidential race.
"There is a culture of fraud and corruption in our cities,” Rapini said. “There was just recently a conviction of a Democratic town chair on 28 counts of voter fraud, right? In the city of Stamford."
Thomas argued such cases are rare – and typically caused by voter mistakes instead of fraud.
"I've come across people in my district who say things like, 'Oh, I tried to save a stamp. I put me and my husband's absentee ballot in the same envelope,'” Thomas said. "To me, that's a sign the system is working, or else we wouldn't know fraud had been committed.”
Thomas accused Rapini of being an election denier. In past social media posts, Rapini pushed conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election and praised Jan. 6 rioters as “patriots by the thousands in DC fighting for what is right.”
Thomas: "The tweets I'm talking about are the ones where you hashtag 'stop the steal,' where you talk about patriots on Jan. 6 doing what is right.”
Rapini: "I have said many times -- if not once, than a hundred times -- that Joe Biden is our president. And I did that after I asked questions about our elections."
Rapini is the former chairman of Fight Voter Fraud Inc., a group that filed dozens of dismissed voter fraud complaints with the State Elections Enforcement Commission. The commission issued a rare rebuke for a "needless waste of the limited investigatory resources of the Commission.”
Both candidates also clashed over early in-person voting. Connecticut is one of only four states that doesn’t offer it. This fall, voters will decide whether to amend the state Constitution to allow early voting. State lawmakers would have to sign off too.
Thomas supports up to five days of early voting.
“It's good for everybody, so I'm a passionate supporter,” she said.
Rapini said early voting would cost cities and towns too much money. If voters approve the referendum, he would recommend no more than three days of it.
Rapini said he’s more focused on vote-by-mail security.
"One of the biggest problems we have in Connecticut elections always, always happens with absentee ballot voting,” he said. “And always happens with political campaigns who kind of rig or abuse the system."
Rapini pointed to the 2019 Democratic primary in Bridgeport, where a judge found that Mayor Joe Ganim’s campaign helped ineligible voters cast absentee ballots. Others testified that they were pressured to vote for Ganim. Judge Barry Stevens did not order a new primary, but urged state lawmakers to reconsider absentee ballot rules.
"I want to get political campaigns out of the business of handing out absentee ballot [applications] and leave that responsibility up to the voters, where it belongs,” he said.
Voters can already apply for an absentee ballot, although they must qualify to vote by mail. For the first time, people can apply online.
Rapini wants a photo identification requirement to vote. Thomas does not.
"Mandating government-issued ID is a solution very much in search of a problem,” she said. “The incidents of people creating -- showing up at the polls with trying to impersonate someone else -- honestly, we should be so lucky."
The debate ended with a tense exchange, where Thomas accused her opponent of making racist comments on stage. It came after Rapini brought up Independent Party candidate Cynthia Jennings, who was not on stage.
“If you like Rep. Thomas you’ll probably like Cynthia Jennings too,” Rapini said.
Thomas shot back.
“I find that a little insulting since she’s an African-American woman. I’m not sure what else we have in common,” Thomas said.
Rapini accused the Democrat of "play[ing] a race card.”
Longtime Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, retired earlier this year to care for her ailing husband. Gov. Ned Lamont appointed attorney Mark Kohler to serve the remainder of Merrill’s term. Kohler is not running for the job permanently.