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State appoints temporary election monitor in Bridgeport

A Bridgeport police video shows city employee Wanda Geter-Pataky placing absentee ballots into an election drop box outside the Margaret Morton Government Center, where she worked, during Bridgeport Democratic Primary Mayoral candidate John Gomes' challenge of absentee ballots in Superior Court in Bridgeport, Conn. on Friday, October 13, 2023. Geter-Pataky, who watched as the video clips of the drop boxes were put into evidence, was advised by her lawyer to not answer questions regarding the absentee ballots to avoid self incrimination.
Brian A. Pounds
/
Hearst Connecticut Media / Pool Photo
A Bridgeport police video shows city employee Wanda Geter-Pataky placing absentee ballots into an election drop box outside the Margaret Morton Government Center, where she worked, during Bridgeport Democratic Primary Mayoral candidate John Gomes' challenge of absentee ballots in Superior Court in Bridgeport, Conn. on Friday, October 13, 2023. Geter-Pataky, who watched as the video clips of the drop boxes were put into evidence, was advised by her lawyer to not answer questions regarding the absentee ballots to avoid self incrimination.

A temporary election monitor was quietly appointed in Bridgeport this week, one day before a judge threw out the results of the city’s recent Democratic mayoral primary and while hundreds of people preemptively cast absentee ballots ahead of the city’s Nov. 7 general election.

Peggy Reeves, a former state lawmaker, registrar of voters and state election director, was selected by Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas to watch over the voting processes in Bridgeport, which has a history of problems with absentee balloting.

Thomas made the decision to appoint Reeves as a temporary monitor in Bridgeport after the Secretary of the State’s office failed to find someone to take over that position on a more permanent basis until the end of 2024.

Reeves, who served as Wilton’s Democratic Registrar of Voters for 14 years and later worked as the state election director from 2011 to 2019, stepped into the role at a rather chaotic moment in the city.

Tara Chozet, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of the State, said Reeves started work on Oct. 31, a day before Superior Court Judge William Clark ordered officials to schedule a new Democratic primary between Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim and his challenger John Gomes.

Clark rendered that decision after reviewing what he described as “shocking” video footage of Ganim supporters and Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee members allegedly delivering stacks of absentee ballots to drop boxes ahead of the Sept. 12 primary.

State lawmakers responded to some of that surveillance footage, which leaked out of Bridgeport City Hall, by voting to provide the Secretary of the State with up to $150,000 per year to compensate a single election monitor in Bridgeport.

But finding someone willing to permanently take up that high-profile position has been a difficult task, which is why Reeves was called back in.

According to the Secretary of the State’s office, Reeves’ job in the leadup to the Nov. 7 general election will include a variety of administrative tasks.

She will shadow the employees in the Bridgeport Town Clerk’s Office, who are responsible for collecting applications for absentee ballots, mailing those ballots to voters ahead of the election and collecting the completed ballots once they are either mailed back in or delivered to one of the four drop boxes in the city.

The monitor was also supposed to watch over officials from the Bridgeport Registrar of Voters at the nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other locations where the city decided to administer supervised absentee voting, which allows voters to receive and fill out absentee ballots under the gaze of local election officials.

But the two facilities where the Bridgeport Registrar of Voters conducted supervised absentee balloting for the general election also took place in mid-October, long before Reeves could have an opportunity to witness that process.

Ganim and Gomes, both of whom are also on the general election ballot, voiced their support for an election monitor after the surveillance footage was released. The videos prompted a flurry of complaints to the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

But it’s unclear whether Reeves will actually be able to prevent the actions that led Judge Clark to throw out the results of this year’s primary.

For the most part, the testimony and evidence presented in the election lawsuit did not focus on the actions of local election officials who were processing and counting absentee ballots in city hall.

The case presented by Gomes’ attorney was centered on the activities of party officials and campaign workers who were out in the community soliciting absentee votes ahead of the elections and allegedly harvesting people’s ballots, which is illegal under Connecticut law unless you are a family member, caregiver or “designee” for those voters.

That fact was emphasized by William Bloss, Gomes’ attorney, during a press conference on Thursday.

“We are not here because of some oversight, or some technicality, where somebody didn’t cross off a check box the right way,” Bloss told members of the media at Gomes campaign headquarters. “There was ballot harvesting. That’s why we are here.”

Sen. Kevin Kelly, the state Senate Republican Minority Leader, responded to the announcement this week by calling the temporary election monitor “window dressing,” and he argued that it would do little to deter the alleged absentee ballot fraud.

“Does the Secretary of the State actually think this will inspire confidence in voters – people who already think their votes don’t count?” Kelly said in a prepared statement.

By the time Reeves started this week, more than 2,300 absentee ballots had been sent out to voters in Bridgeport, and more than 1,000 of those ballots had already been returned to the town clerk.

The job description that the Secretary of the State distributed for the monitor position does state that the official can conduct inspections, inquiries and investigations. The language the legislature passed also gives the monitor the ability to access “all records, data and material maintained by or available to [any official of the municipality or appointee of such official].”

The Secretary of the State’s office interpreted that language to mean that Reeves could request the video surveillance footage of the four drop boxes in Bridgeport if she felt it necessary.

“We believe the statute gives the election monitor the power to demand the drop box video for review, and they would have to give it to her,” Chozet said.

This story was originally published in the Connecticut Mirror.

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