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April 2, 2024

GOP says Democratic election reforms are an April Fools’ joke

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Senate Minority Leader Stephen Harding assailed Democratic reforms. From left, Sens. Henri Martin and Rob Sampson, Harding and Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco.

Republicans are pressing their case for a more aggressive legislative response to the Bridgeport absentee ballot scandal than was found in bills reported out of a committee to the floor last week by majority Democrats.

Among other things, the GOP is seeking a mandatory minimum prison sentence for elections fraud, as well as restrictions on mailing unsolicited applications for absentee ballots as method of getting out the vote.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, and the ranking Republicans on the Government Administration and Elections Committee accused Democrats on Monday of bad faith by overselling what he says are modest reforms.

On April Fool’s Day, Harding said Democrats were trying to “fool the voters in Connecticut into thinking that they really want to do anything to address voter confidence, voter integrity in our elections.”

“Instead, they prefer to gaslight the public. They prefer to gaslight the press,” said Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott.

The major reform proposal, Senate Bill 441, would create a Municipal Election Accountability Board with powers ranging from mandating retraining local election officials to a complete takeover in running elections, if requested by a judge, the secretary of the state or the elections enforcement commission.

“S.B. 441 proposed real and robust reform that can and should pass the session and take a number of measures to prevent what happened — what is alleged to have happened — in Bridgeport this fall from happening again,” said Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, co-chair of the elections committee.

A Superior Court judge ordered a new Democratic mayoral primary in Bridgeport after viewing video surveillance showing Wanda Geter-Pataky, a Ganim supporter and vice chair of the city’s Democratic Town Committee, placing what appeared to be a large number of absentee ballots into a drop box outside city hall.

State law restricts who can return someone else’s completed ballot to relatives, a police officer or a registered designee.

Ganim trailed his challenger, John Gomes, in votes cast in person on election day, but he won by 251 votes when the absentee ballots were counted. Twenty-two percent of all the votes cast came by absentee, a far greater percentage than any other municipality in Connecticut.

“The videos are shocking to the court and should be shocking to all of the parties,” wrote Judge William Clark in his order for a new primary.

Ganim won the new primary ordered by Clark and the general election that followed.

As Harding acknowledged Monday, there was no evidence presented that the ballots deposited by Geter-Pataky and others were fraudulent; the larger question was whether they had improperly influenced the voters who filled out the ballots and then apparently gave them to her to be deposited.  

A Connecticut Mirror investigation found that Geter-Pataky spent four months prior to the Sept. 12 primary helping voters fill out at least 537 absentee ballot applications ahead of the election. She signed at least 12% of the applications that were submitted, despite the fact that records indicate she never registered to distribute those forms, as state law requires.

Ganim’s margin of victory in a 2019 primary over Sen. Marilyn Moore also came in absentee ballots.

Geter-Pataky was one of three people the State Elections Enforcement Commission recommended last year for possible criminal prosecution in relation to the 2019 mayoral primary. Prosecutors have taken no action on that case, nor have they brought any charges in the 2023 primary.

Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, the ranking House Republican on the elections committee, said Monday the best way to limit undue influence voters using absentee ballots is to restrict who can provide applications for them.

“We’ve always felt, and I always feel, that if you would like to vote by absentee ballot, you should be the sole person asking for that application,” Mastrofrancesco said. “That one policy alone will definitely deter and make a big difference in our elections.”

The Republicans also would require anyone using an absentee ballot to include a photocopy of their driver’s license or other photo ID in the same envelope with their ballot. They also would at least temporarily suspend the use of absentee drop boxes.

Blumenthal and his co-chair, Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, said the challenge is to  enhance oversight without curtailing access to voting. Some of the GOP ideas, such as obtaining and copying photo IDs, would be problematic, they said.

“They have been overwhelmingly rejected before, because they would impede people’s access to the ballot without increasing security in any reasonably anticipated way,” Blumenthal said.

Flexer issued a statement saying that the Democratic reforms were “meaningful changes to stop those bad actors who do disenfranchise some voters, without disenfranchising all 2.1 million Connecticut voters.”

Blumenthal said Democrats are open to further negotiations.

Several Democrats, including Blumenthal and Flexer, voted in committee last week for Senate Bill 390, which would impose the mandatory minimum penalty sought by the Republicans.

Blumenthal said he and Flexer made clear they were unlikely to support the measure in a floor vote but were willing to vote affirmatively in committee to continue the discussion.

Sampson said no one ever has been sentenced to prison for absentee ballot fraud.

“We need a real deterrent,” Sampson said.

Criminal prosecutions are rare.

John Mallozzi was convicted in 2022 of 14 counts of forgery and 14 counts of committing false statements relating to obtaining and casting absentee ballots in the names of the voters who didn’t seek them in 2015, when he was the Democratic chairman in Stamford.

Mallozzi was sentenced to probation and fined $35,000, despite the prosecution’s call for a five-year prison sentence. Blumenthal declined to say if he thought Mallozzi deserved prison time.

“I’m not going to comment on any specific case or prosecution,” Blumenthal said. “What I can say is that enforcement is a key piece of our reforms.”

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