A Connecticut state judge on Wednesday tossed out the results of Bridgeport’s Democratic mayoral primary after watching surveillance videos showing people stuffing multiple absentee ballots into outdoor collection boxes.
The ruling came just six days before the general election. It has created an unusual situation in the state’s largest city in which voters will decide the outcome of the city’s mayoral election on Nov. 7. Then, they will be asked to return to the polls at a later date to choose the lawful Democratic nominee in the very same race.
In his ruling, Superior Court Judge William Clark addressed the inconsistency by saying he lacked the authority to postpone or cancel the general election. However, he said he had seen enough evidence of malfeasance to order a rerun of a Sept. 12 primary in which incumbent Mayor Joe Ganim defeated challenger John Gomes by 251 votes out of 8,173 cast.
“The volume of ballots so mishandled is such that it calls the result of the primary election into serious doubt and leaves the court unable to determine the legitimate result of the primary,” Clark wrote in his ruling.
The judge cited statistics showing that abnormally large numbers of absentee ballots were cast in certain voting districts and video evidence showing multiple people shoving stacks of ballots into drop boxes, in violation of state law.
Under Connecticut law, voters using a collection box must drop off their completed ballots themselves, or designate certain family members, police, local election officials, or a caregiver to do it for them. The penalty for violating the law could be up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines, according to The Highland County Press.
“The videos are shocking to the court and should be shocking to all the parties,” Clark wrote.
He gave the attorneys in the case 10 days to confer with city and state election officials on a possible date for the new primary. It’s not known if Bridgeport city officials will appeal his decision.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission is currently investigating the allegations of ballot stuffing, as well as other possible improprieties.
Mayor Ganim has repeatedly denied any knowledge of wrongdoing related to ballots.
Attorneys for city officials had argued in a joint legal brief that the security camera footage doesn’t prove anything illegal took place. They said “not one voter” testified about their ballot being mishandled.
During testimony held before the judge last month, one person is seen on surveillance video stuffing stacks of papers into a ballot drop box. Gomes contends the person is Wanda Geter-Pataky, a Ganim supporter and vice chair of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee. In court, Geter-Pataky exercised her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer questions. A former City Council member and current candidate also declined to answer questions about whether she appears in other videos.
Gomes, the city’s former chief administrative officer, brought the civil lawsuit alleging Ganim campaign volunteers unlawfully collected the absentee ballots, according to Connecticut Public Radio.
Gomes told the outlet he’s confident he can win if voters reject the absentee ballots.
“All we could do is ask the voters of Bridgeport to show up on November 7, and cast their vote in person to make sure that this does not happen again,” he said.
William Bloss, a lawyer for Gomes, said he believed the judge’s ruling Wednesday set up a scenario in which a primary would only be needed if Ganim wins the general election. A Gomes victory, he claimed, would make the primary moot.
Ganim responded to the judge’s decision in a statement Thursday.
“Over the coming days, we will explore all legal options that are available to us, including the possibility of appealing the court’s decision,” Ganim said. “We all want a fair election process.”
The general election will take place as planned on Tuesday. Ganim will appear as the Democratic nominee. Gomes is on the ballot, too, as an independent candidate. Lamond Daniels and Republican David Herz are also running for mayor.
The judge’s ruling has also prompted Connecticut’s elected officials to call for investigations, and to pass election reforms, especially affecting absentee ballots.
Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont has told investigators to “leave no stone unturned” looking into the claims of election fraud in Bridgeport but urged voters “not to jump to conclusions” about the ballot stuffing video and the state’s mail voting system, according to The Highland County Press.
In a statement, state Senate GOP Minority Leader Kevin Kelly said the court case signals the need for election reforms.
“Judge Clark saw what the rest of us saw on the videos: absentee ballot box stuffing in Bridgeport where 1,255 ballots were deposited by only 420 individuals,” Kelly said. “In video after video, we saw dubious and repeated absentee ballot box dumping involving multiple people.”
In an editorial written by the Hearst Connecticut Media Editorial Board and published on the website of the Connecticut Post, Thursday, the board wrote: “The judge’s ruling in the Bridgeport primary is a black mark for the city, yet another in a long string of similar instances, and for the state. But it should be not used as a mark against freer voting for everyone. Making the ballot available to as many eligible people as want to use it must remain our priority as a state, regardless of what happens in one jurisdiction.”
“This could be viewed as an example of the system working. It’s not how anyone would design it, but the people will have their say. It just may take a little longer than anticipated,” the board said.
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