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Bridgeport's getting sued over alleged absentee ballot abuse, again. Here's how it compares to 2019

A ballot box outside of Bridgeport’s Margaret Morton Government Center, where a woman was seen on video placing multiple stacks of papers in a ballot box.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
A ballot box outside of Bridgeport’s Margaret Morton Government Center, where a woman was seen on video placing multiple stacks of papers in a ballot box.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission has launched an investigation intoallegations ofabsentee ballot fraudin Bridgeport. This comes after a video surfacedthat apparently shows a woman making multiple early morning trips to put a collection of papers into an absentee ballot box. It is unclear if the papers were absentee ballots.

According to Connecticut law, people using a collection box to vote by absentee ballot must drop off their completed ballots themselves, or designate certain family members, police, local election officials or a caregiver to do it for them.

John Gomes lost the Democratic mayoral primary to incumbent Joe Ganim by 251 votes. The Gomes campaign has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to order a new election be held and the Sept. 12 primary results be thrown out.Gomes saysthe woman in the video is a person loyal to the Ganim campaign. But, authorities have not confirmed that.

Ganim said he did “not condone, in any way, actions taken by anyone including any campaign, city, or elected officials, which undermines the integrity of either the electoral process or city property.”

Attorney Prerna Rao represented plaintiffs in an unsuccessful 2019 lawsuit against officials alleged to have wrongly manipulated absentee ballots in Bridgeport. Rao spoke with Connecticut Public's John Henry Smith. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

John Henry Smith

Attorney, from what you can tell, how much of this current situation is more of the same from what you experienced in 2019, and how is it different?

Prerna Rao
There's a lot of the same players and a lot of the same allegations and violations of the same statutes and election laws that are taking place. There's a substantial difference, the major one being that the plaintiffs in 2019 were voters who claimed to have been wronged or negatively affected by the actions being taken by the defendants, and in this case, the plaintiff is in an aggrieved candidate.

John Henry Smith
Based on what you've heard and what you've read from the publicly available information, how strong is John Gomes's lawsuit? Do you think he has a chance to force a new election or even be declared the winner of the primary?

Prerna Rao
It's very difficult to tell right now. They will have to show either a mistake in the count of the votes — essentially that there were 251 or more votes that could be invalidated by the court, or should have gone in Gomez's favor — or they will have to show substantial enough violations of election laws that would cast the results of the election into serious doubt. Those are both difficult burdens to overcome.

John Henry Smith
Have you seen the video that is central to this case?

Prerna Rao
I have.

John Henry Smith
How damning is or is not that video of the woman putting something in the absentee ballot box?

Prerna Rao
I can't speak to her intentions. In particular, however, I can say that the gun is smoking — so to speak — as to apparent violations of election law. As you indicated earlier, there are very limited ways how absentee ballots can be received by the clerk's office. I haven't seen any claims that she was an authorized or designated individual for that many voters.

John Henry Smith
The thing I keep coming back to, attorney, is if the person in the video is indeed a political insider stuffing the ballot box, she must have known that those boxes were under camera surveillance? And if so, why would her ballot box stuffing attempt be so sloppy and so easily revealed? What do you make of that, Attorney Rao?

Prerna Rao
Again, I can't speak to her intentions in particular. But what I do want to say is that the video appears to have been taken about a week before the primary election. SEEC, The State Enforcement Elections Commission, had recommended criminal charges against various individuals for violations of election law ... before the primary election. So at least everyone was on notice that these rules are important to follow. The reason that these rules are important to follow is because they help ensure that voters can trust the election process and the ultimate outcomes. And that way, we can trust the lawmakers and the government officials who win these elections and accordingly all the work that our public officials do. Now I understand that post-COVID, the General Assembly is looking possibly at new changes, and we can have a reasonable debate about what the new rules can be in the future. But, these are the rules right now. And it's important that everyone plays by the same rules and ballots are treated sacrosanct for that reason.

John Henry Smith
Well, interesting — and we'll finish with this — interesting that State Sen. Kevin Kelly and other Republicans are pointing to this and saying, 'Aha, see! See! We were right all the time! There is foolishness with the absentee ballot procedures.' With your experience from your lawsuit in 2019 — I mean — did you see anything to believe that there was a systemic ballot-box-stuffing problem?

Prerna Rao
The way that Bridgeport does it in particular, there may be a culture that we need to talk about — or it needs to be addressed. For example, in 2019, the court found, "illegal and disturbing," evidence and that particular judge urged that the legislature try to address some of these problems. But those were limited specifically to Bridgeport. It's very difficult to translate what happens in one place to another.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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