Absentee ballots’ use, possible abuse, called ‘art form’ in Bridgeport


Marilyn Moore insists she wasn’t shocked four years ago when a blizzard of absentee ballots cast in favor of Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim blew away her victory at the polls. Too many people told her what was coming.

“I can’t say how many people predicted I would lose on the absentee ballots,” Moore, a Democratic state senator, said in an interview Tuesday. “They expected it. They expected it. It’s just the way it is.”

The same thing happened last week to John Gomes, this year’s challenger to Ganim. As did Moore, he beat Ganim at the polls in the Democratic mayoral primary — only to get crushed by the mayor in absentee voting, 1,545 to 851.

But there was a difference this time: leaked security video that apparently shows a woman repeatedly and furtively depositing absentee ballots into a drop box outside city offices in downtown Bridgeport. The CT Mirror has not independently confirmed the authenticity of the video.

The Gomes campaign identified the woman as Wanda Geter-Pataky, a city employee, vice chair of the Democratic town committee — and one of the people accused in an unsuccessful lawsuit four years ago of illegally collecting absentee ballots for Ganim.

The video has reignited suspicions of fraud in the abnormally high use of absentee voting in Connecticut’s largest city, fueled demands by Gov. Ned Lamont and others for an investigation, and sent Gomes to court to challenge the results.

Superior Court Judge William Clark issued an order Tuesday instructing Ganim and city and state election officials to appear Monday to show cause why he should not issue an injunction blocking certification of Ganim’s victory.

Gomes wants the court to either declare him a winner or order a new primary — an extraordinary resolution but not an unprecedented one. The last time it happened was a year ago in a Democratic primary for state representative. 

The issue: Absentee ballot irregularities. 

The place: Bridgeport.

“There is a deliberate effort to have people vote by absentee ballot that is unparalleled in the state,” said William Bloss, an elections lawyer representing Gomes. “It is a very deliberate aspect of running campaigns in Bridgeport.”

“It’s become an art form,” said Christopher L. Caruso, a former state representative from Bridgeport.

“It’s like a generational thing they pass on to one another,” Moore said, describing Geter-Pataky as an unapologetic practitioner. “I was in a Democratic town committee meeting in 2018 where she said, ‘No one gets elected without Wanda Geter doing absentee ballots.’”

Geter-Pataky was one of three people the State Elections Enforcement Commission recommended this summer for possible criminal prosecution in relation to the 2019 mayoral primary. Prosecutors have taken no action.

She has not commented on the video purportedly showing her depositing absentee ballots this month, but she previously denied wrongdoing in the 2019 case in a statement to the Connecticut Post.

Ganim has distanced himself from any effort to collect absentee ballots on his behalf, and he could not be reached Tuesday.

Moore said there is a tradition in Bridgeport of targeting voters who reside in public housing or receive rental subsidies with appeals to vote by absentee ballot. 

No fraud has been proven, but it is undisputed that a record 4,000 voters applied for absentee ballots in Bridgeport this year — about four times more than in Hartford. About 2,400 used them to vote in the Ganim-Gomes contest.

Nearly 37% of Ganim’s 4,212 votes were cast by absentee.

“It’s absurd when you think about it,” Caruso said. “The whole process is out of control.”

Democrats are uneasily watching events unfold in Bridgeport, one of the party’s strongholds.

Lamont said the video is alarming on two counts. It not only calls into question the legitimacy of the Bridgeport primary but adds to the deep cynicism Donald J. Trump has encouraged about integrity of U.S. elections since winning the presidency in 2016 and then losing it in 2020.

“It causes concern if people don’t have faith in the integrity of the system. Donald Trump has contested the integrity of elections every time he loses,” Lamont said.

Trump, who is facing federal criminal charges for his effort to pressure Georgia election officials to flip the state in his favor without a basis for doing so, failed to show fraud in any of the swing states where he challenged the results.

Voter fraud is real, but evidence shows it as local, small-scale and relatively rare — not national or assembly-line efficient. But in close, low-turnout elections, even a few fraudulently obtained or influenced ballots can be the difference.

The election fraud that has been corroborated in Connecticut generally has involved absentee ballots that were improperly obtained, filled out under the illegal influence of candidates or campaign operatives, or returned by unauthorized persons.

State law says absentee ballots can be returned only by the ballot applicant or by their family members, police officers, local election officials or someone who is directly caring for someone who receives an absentee ballot because they are ill or physically disabled.

Criminal prosecutions are rare.

John Mallozzi was convicted last year 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.

The ruse was discovered by the ultimate check and balance: On Election Day, one of the voters whose name had been forged turned up at the polls to vote. He was allowed to vote, but the absentee ballot cast in his name was impounded and referred to the State Elections Enforcement Commission and eventually state prosecutors.

Mallozzi was sentenced to probation and fined $35,000, despite the prosecution’s call for a five-year prison sentence.

Moore and Caruso, the two Bridgeport Democrats, and the Republican state chairman, Ben Proto, said there is little disincentive to stop abusing absentee ballots until someone is convicted and sentenced to prison.

“Someone’s gotta go to jail,” Proto said. “If someone goes to jail, that’s something that will make people think twice.”

“Fines are not going to be enough. The party is going to pay the fine for them,” Moore said. “Take away their livelihood. Take away their pensions.”

“The only way you curb this is jail time,” Caruso said.

Proto did not support Trump’s claim that election fraud was rampant in statewide or national elections, but he said harvesting of absentee ballots clearly is possible in local primaries and is known to happen.

“Up until this point, no one ever saw it happen,” Proto said of the leaked video. “Now the whole world sees it happen.”

Proto said Bridgeport is much-maligned for its administration of elections, but it is to be complimented for protecting the ballot drop boxes with video surveillance. Bloss said Bridgeport had three other drop boxes, all protected by video.

Republicans say the drop boxes, which were introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic when anyone could vote by absentee, have outlived their usefulness.  

Proto and Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, the House Republican leader, said requiring absentee ballots to be mailed or returned in person would make last-minute, mass abuse of absentee ballots more difficult.

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