Ganim, Gomes in Bridgeport election again. What’s changed?
As Bridgeport prepares for its third mayoral election in five months, political operatives in the city are, once again, locked in an all-out battle for absentee votes.
A new election between Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim and his Democratic opponent John Gomes was scheduled for Jan. 23 after a state Superior Court judge concluded that last year’s primary between the two men was marred by widespread ballot fraud.
Video surveillance footage that was presented in court allegedly captured multiple people — including city councilwoman Eneida Martinez and the vice chairwoman of Bridgeport’s Democratic party, Wanda Geter-Pataky — illegally depositing ballots into drop boxes ahead of that election.
Dozens of complaints were subsequently filed with state elections enforcement officials. And the Connecticut secretary of the state responded to the ongoing scandal by appointing two monitors to supervise future elections in Bridgeport.
Yet despite all of that, records show the aggressive campaign tactics used to drive absentee voting in Connecticut’s largest city have changed very little in recent months.
As of Thursday, more than 6,000 absentee ballot applications had been signed out of the Bridgeport town clerk’s office in preparation for Tuesday’s election. Many of the same political operatives who were busy in advance of the Sept. 12 Democratic primary continued to circulate those applications street to street and door to door.
And records show the dueling Democratic campaigns have repeated the strategy of targeting residents primarily in Bridgeport's low-income apartments and elderly housing units.
Ganim, who returned to the mayor's office in 2015 after serving seven years in prison on federal corruption charges, has relied heavily on absentee votes to win many of his most recent elections.
It was absentee votes that carried Ganim to victory in 2019 when he was challenged in the Democratic primary by state Sen. Marilyn Moore. And last year, he squeaked out two election-night wins against Gomes after overcoming a deficit in the in-person vote count.
It was Ganim's 251-vote victory in the September primary last year, however, that drew national attention after the video surveillance footage captured the mayor's allies allegedly depositing stacks of absentee ballots, which is illegal under Connecticut law.
In recent months, Ganim acknowledged that some of his supporters likely violated state election laws by mishandling absentee ballots during that primary, but he sought to downplay the significance of those events by publicly accusing Gomes supporters of committing the same offenses — something Gomes has repeatedly denied.
Ganim told the media last month that he retrained all of his campaign staff and volunteers on the laws surrounding absentee voting in Connecticut.
Even so, records show Ganim's campaign is still hyper-focused on pushing absentee ballots throughout the city.
"January's weather has been harsh and unpredictable," Ganim said in a prepared statement. "Clearly it’s going to present a challenge with turnout. But, I'm hopeful that people recognize the importance of Bridgeport leadership and are able to come out and vote."
Gomes, who previously worked in Ganim's administration, expressed hope that he would once again win the in-person vote count on Tuesday.
"While it's difficult trying to prepare for a Democratic Primary the fourth Tuesday of January, I know Bridgeport residents who want a new direction for the city will show up Tuesday as they did in September and November," he said in a prepared statement.
William Clark, the state Superior Court judge who overturned Ganim's primary win last year, issued several new orders ahead the new primary in an attempt to lessen the influence of political operatives and to cut down on the potential for absentee ballot fraud.
As part of a court order, Clark required local election officials to start recording whether absentee ballots were submitted through the mail or returned via the drop boxes, which operatives used as part of an alleged ballot harvesting campaign in September.
But the biggest change Clark approved was reducing the amount of time that absentee ballot applications were available ahead of the election.
During last year's primary, political operatives in Bridgeport spent more than four months soliciting potential absentee voters and signing them up to receive mail-in ballots.
But for the new court-ordered primary, Clark narrowed that timeframe to roughly three weeks.
Even with that shortened schedule, more than 2,700 Democratic voters in the city were signed up to receive an absentee ballot as of late last week, and more than 1,300 of those voters had already sent their completed ballots back to local election officials.
That number is half of the absentee ballots that were cast in the mayoral primary last September, but it still could be enough to swing the results in the upcoming election.
Roughly 48.5% of the ballots that have been submitted for the upcoming election came from voters in Bridgeport's 136th, 137th and 138th voting districts.
Those sections of the city were also the most competitive battlegrounds for absentee votes in the mayoral election that was overturned last year.
A recent investigation by The Connecticut Mirror showed the competition for voters in those areas was relentless in the leadup to the September primary.
Political operatives in those districts distributed hundreds of absentee ballot applications in an attempt to influence the eventual vote count. And the push was so persistent that hundreds of voters eventually had two or more absentee applications filled out and submitted in their names.
Some political operatives in those districts also took it a step further by helping voters to cancel ballots that were already cast so they could potentially swap votes ahead of the election.
Municipal primaries in Connecticut are frequently low-turnout affairs, with less than a quarter of all eligible voters participating in those elections. And that is unlikely to improve in the new court-ordered primary where only two candidates are on the ballot.
That is part of the reason why both campaigns devoted large amounts of time and resources in the past three weeks boosting the absentee numbers.
Ganim was assisted in that effort by a large group of political operatives including Tony Barr, the leader of the city's New Movement Party, and city council members Aidee Nieves and Alfredo Castillo, who collectively requested more than 700 absentee ballot applications from the clerk's office in advance of this week's primary.
Meanwhile, Gomes' absentee push has been led primarily by city councilwoman Maria Pereira, who won her reelection in September based on the margin of absentee votes, and Denise Solano, who personally signed out more than 1,300 absentee applications from the clerk's office in the past month.
With so much emphasis placed on courting absentee voters in Bridgeport, the new election monitors hired by Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas have spent the past month reminding both campaigns about the state's election laws and their responsibilities when circulating absentee applications.
It's legal for political operatives in the state to help people complete an application for a ballot. But it is illegal for them to assist voters in filling out the actual ballots or helping people return the completed ballots to local election officials.
Earlier this month, Thomas openly encouraged more city residents to vote in-person to cut down on misconduct with absentee balloting.
“Our monitors cannot do it all, and we encourage anyone who can do so to vote in person on January 23rd," Thomas said in a press release.
It's yet to be seen how many Bridgeport Democrats will follow those instructions on Tuesday.
It's also unclear whether Tuesday's election will actually decide who will be Bridgeport's next mayor.
Depending on the outcome of the new primary and future court proceedings, Bridgeport voters may be asked to return to the polls in February for a new general election, which would likely feature a fourth matchup between Ganim and Gomes.
This story was originally published by The Connecticut Mirror on Jan 21, 2024.