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CT preserving fingerprints, DNA on Bridgeport absentee ballots

FILE: Absentee ballots from New Haven’s 38 voting districts sit in piles before being opened and fed into tabulator machines by poll workers on Nov. 08, 2022.
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
FILE: Absentee ballots from New Haven’s 38 voting districts sit in piles before being opened and fed into tabulator machines by poll workers on Nov. 08, 2022.

State officials have taken unprecedented steps to preserve any fingerprints or DNA evidence that might remain on the roughly 2,630 absentee ballots cast in Bridgeport’s recent Democratic primary in the expectation that the material may be used in eventual criminal prosecutions.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission, which is responsible for policing Connecticut’s election laws, took possession of every absentee ballot cast in the Sept. 12 primary between Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim and his Democratic challenger John Gomes.

The agency seized those ballots last month after it received several complaints and referrals related to potential absentee ballot abuse in Bridgeport, two of which were focused on a leaked surveillance video that allegedly shows a Ganim supporter dropping absentee ballots into a drop box outside the Bridgeport Government Center.

The SEEC staff has moved quickly since then to process all of the absentee ballots and the envelopes that those ballots arrived in so that they can be shared with the attorneys participating a lawsuit filed by Gomes, who is seeking to overturn the results of the election.

Lawyers with the state Attorney General’s office informed the judge presiding over that lawsuit last week that the SEEC quickly handed over all of the applications that Bridgeport residents filled out to request an absentee ballot. But they said it was taking more time for the SEEC staff to scan and copy the absentee ballots and envelopes because they wanted to preserve the potential “forensic evidence” on those documents.

Joshua Foley, a spokesman for the SEEC, told the Connecticut Mirror this week that additional precautions were taken during the scanning of those ballots so that staff would not destroy or contaminate any fingerprints or DNA on the documents and envelopes.

“SEEC has to take care to preserve the evidentiary chain of custody so that all physical evidence, which may include DNA and fingerprints, is preserved for possible future analysis,” Foley said in a written statement.

It’s unclear who would actually perform a forensic analysis on the ballots or whether any law enforcement officials or prosecutors requested such an analysis as part of a criminal investigation.

Foley, who is also an attorney with the SEEC, declined to comment on whether the commission received a request from state or federal criminal investigators.

The efforts to maintain the fingerprints on the documents and possibly the saliva on the envelopes highlights how seriously the SEEC is taking the investigation into the most recent allegations of fraud in Bridgeport.

Officials with the Ganim campaign did not respond to a request for comment about the SEEC’s efforts to preserve the forensic evidence.

The Gomes campaign said they welcomed any steps that investigators take to get to the bottom of alleged ballot fraud.

“Anything and everything that can be done to eliminate the harvesting of ballots and absentee ballot fraud, I think is a good thing,” Christine Bartlett Josie, Gomes campaign manager, said.

The SEEC has investigated numerous complaints of absentee ballot fraud and abuse in Bridgeport in recent years, and the commission recently referred three people associated with Ganim’s 2019 mayoral campaign for potential criminal charges.

The allegations over ballot fraud have drawn far more attention this year, however, for one big reason: video surveillance footage.

Since the election, several videos have leaked that show people delivering absentee ballots to drop boxes at four locations in Bridgeport, a city of roughly 148,000 people.

Gomes, who lost the preliminary vote count to Ganim by 251 ballots, posted one of those videos on Facebook several days after the election.

The Gomes campaign alleged that footage showed Wanda Geter-Pataky, a Ganim supporter and the vice chairwoman of Bridgeport’s Democratic Town Committee, delivering stacks of absentee ballots to a drop box outside the city Government Center, where she worked as a front desk clerk.

That video sent shockwaves through political circles in Connecticut because state law restricts who can handle and deliver an absentee ballot for another voter.

The law says those ballots can be handled only by the ballot applicant, their family members, police officers, local election officials or someone who is directly caring for someone who is ill or physically disabled.

The CT Mirror has not be able to independently verify the authenticity of the video released by the Gomes campaign. John Gulash, an attorney who is representing Geter-Pataky, did not return a call left at his office this week.

Meanwhile, Geter-Pataky has been placed on paid leave from her city position pending an investigation. And more than 2,000 hours of video footage from cameras overlooking the four drop boxes have been requested as part of Gomes’ lawsuit in an effort to identify other instances of potential ballot harvesting.

As the attorneys were sorting through that mountain of evidence this week, additional footage was published on YouTube that allegedly shows several Gomes supporters placing ballots into the city’s drop boxes.

Ganim’s campaign released a statement in response to that video accusing the Gomes supporters of hypocrisy.

“My opponent professes integrity in our elections; however, their actions and behavior continue to say something entirely different,” Ganim told the CT Post. “You cannot have videos of your campaign workers stuffing ballot boxes and then complain about ballot irregularities when you lose.”

The Gomes campaign argued on Tuesday that all of his supporters depicted in the video were either delivering their own ballots or the ballots of their family members, and the campaign said each one of them was willing to sign affidavits attesting to those facts.

During a press conference following the election, Gomes said that if any of his supporters were caught on camera illegally handling absentee ballots they should be thoroughly investigated as well.

“It is my firm position that neither campaign should misuse absentee ballots,” Gomes said in a press release on Wednesday. “The law should be applied equally, fairly, and appropriately.

“For years, there has been a culture of absentee ballot abuse in Bridgeport. Any intentional misuse of absentee ballots should be prosecuted,” Gomes added. “Wrong is wrong.”

The story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

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