HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut lawmakers voted Tuesday to approve $150,000 in funding for a special election monitor for Bridgeport, as the state's largest city is enveloped in controversy after surveillance cameras recorded a woman stuffing pieces of paper into an absentee ballot drop box a week before the mayoral primary.
Under the new legislation, the monitor will conduct inspections and investigations for the 2023 municipal election and the 2024 state election in Bridgeport. The possible electoral fraud incident is already the subject of a state elections investigation and a civil lawsuit filed by the candidate who lost the primary.
The measure overwhelmingly cleared the House of Representatives and Senate during a special legislative session. Republicans in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly insisted Connecticut must take more steps to tighten its electoral laws and ensure confidence in elections across the state.
“It's necessary to show the people of Connecticut that we're not going to tolerate people undermining our election process,” said state Sen. Rob Sampson, a Republican from Wolcott. He said the video confirmed his fears about how absentee ballots can be misused. Sampson, as well as Republicans in the state House, unsuccessfully tried to amend the election monitor bill to get rid of drop boxes from outside all 169 city and town halls.
Democrats said more needs to be learned about the video. They also contend that getting rid of ballot drop boxes would disenfranchise voters in other communities who've come to rely on the boxes, which were first installed during the pandemic as a safety measure.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, a Democrat from Hartford, said his party takes the allegations of electoral fraud very seriously.
“The one question for today is ... do you take a wrecking ball approach and ban everything for everybody else?” Ritter said. “Or do you try to use more of a scalpel approach in dealing with a situation we all agree is serious?”
Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to pass other measures, including tougher criminal penalties for election lawbreakers and mandatory minimum prison sentences for those convicted of election crimes.
Bridgeport Sen. Marilyn Moore, a Democrat who also lost a mayoral primary to incumbent Mayor Joseph Ganim in 2019 that's currently under a separate criminal investigation, said the General Assembly should focus now on the election monitor and wait to hold a public hearing on other proposals.
The $150,000 for the election monitor had been approved earlier this year for the two-year position, but it was mistakenly sent to the wrong state agency.
The bill, which awaits Gov. Ned Lamont's signature, also moves up the date of Connecticut's presidential primary from the last Tuesday in April to the first Tuesday — another measure that had received bipartisan support in the regular legislative session but failed in the final hours. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul last week signed a bill that sets the same primary date in her state. Leaders of both the state Democratic and Republican party hope the move will lead to more campaign visits from presidential candidates and subsequently give Connecticut voters a greater say in the election.
Approval of Bridgeport's election monitor comes as John Gomes, who lost the Sept. 12 Democratic primary to Ganim by 251 votes, has asked a state judge to either declare him the winner or order a new primary. The judge has given lawyers in the case until next month to review voluminous amounts of evidence in the case.
The videos, taken by city-owned security cameras, were made public by Gomes, Bridgeport’s former chief administrative officer, days after he lost the Democratic primary. Excerpts posted by the Gomes campaign purport to show a woman visiting a drop box outside Bridgeport’s City Hall Annex multiple times during the early morning hours. Under 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.
Ganim has 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.”
This story has been corrected to show that Pennsylvania officials are not moving the state's primary date to the same date as Connecticut. Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering March 19.