Surveillance videos of a woman making multiple early morning trips to stuff papers into an absentee ballot drop box prompted Connecticut election officials to open an investigation Wednesday into possible fraud in the mayoral primary in Bridgeport, the state's largest city.
The videos, taken by city-owned security cameras, were made public this week by Bridgeport's former chief administrative officer John Gomes, days after he lost the Democratic primary to incumbent Mayor Joe Ganim.
The original recordings have not been released by the city, but excerpts posted by the Gomes campaign purport to show a woman visiting a drop box outside Bridgeport's City Hall Annex three times between 5:42 a.m. and 6:38 a.m. on Sept. 5 and stuffing documents inside. The video also shows the same woman inside City Hall Annex handing papers to a man, who then deposits them in the absentee ballot box just before 7:20 a.m.
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.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission voted Wednesday to launch an investigation after receiving multiple referrals and complaints on the matter from Bridgeport police and others.
“Since even before last Tuesday’s primary in Bridgeport, there has been a significant amount of attention drawn to allegations of impropriety surrounding the ballots, particularly the use or misuse of absentee ballots in the primary. These allegations have the effect of undermining the public’s trust in free and fair elections, and we take it very seriously,” said Stephen Penny, the commission's chair.
The commission said it would subpoena the city of Bridgeport for all relevant documents concerning the ballots, including absentee ballot applicant lists and ballot envelopes.
Gomes would not say how his campaign obtained the city video other than it was given to them “because Bridgeport is tired to see the continuation of the violation of our civil rights.” The Associated Press could not immediately independently verify the authenticity of the video released by his campaign.
Gomes filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to have the Sept. 12 primary redone, or him declared the winner.
In a statement released Monday, Ganim 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.”
For decades, Bridgeport, a heavily Democratic working-class city of 148,000, about 62 miles (100 km) east of New York City, has been under state and federal scrutiny for alleged irregularities involving absentee ballots. New primaries have been called over the years in state legislative and local city council races because of absentee ballot problems.
Ganim, 63, was first elected mayor in 1991 and served 12 years before quitting when he was caught accepting bribes and kickbacks. Convicted of racketeering, extortion and other crimes, he spent seven years in prison, but then won his old job back in an election in 2016. He won reelection again four years ago.
As recently as June, state election officials who investigated allegations of absentee ballot fraud in the 2019 mayoral primary referred three people with ties to Ganim’s reelection campaign to state prosecutors, saying they had found “evidence of possible criminal violations.”
It is unclear whether prosecutors took any action.
Gemeem Davis, vice president and co-director of Bridgeport Generation Now, a social action organization, said she has heard for years from residents who have been promised help with things like buying groceries, getting a new mattress or a renter’s property tax rebate, as well as having their sidewalks fixed, so long as they fill out an absentee ballot a certain way.
“These people pretend to be their friend,” Davis said. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with candidates trying to persuade voters to vote for them. But you can’t lie to voters, and you can’t engage in criminal activity.”
She said the video looks like evidence of wrongdoing.
"With the surveillance video clearly showing that there was like quite literally a bag full of absentees being stuffed into the drop box, to me, it feels like we’ve reached the pinnacle now,” Davis said.
Gomes, who is still eligible to run in the general election as an independent candidate, said in his lawsuit that he learned about the existence of the surveillance video three days after the primary.
The lawsuit said the video “appears to show a person who is not an election official and who should not possess absentee ballots except her own depositing what appears to be multiple absentee ballots” in the drop box.
“Another video shows another person exiting from the same building and also depositing what appears to be absentee ballots into that drop box,” the lawsuit reads.
The Bridgeport Police said in a statement that in addition to investigating possible criminal wrongdoing involving the ballots, it was investigating whether any possible breach of the city's security video management system occurred.
State Republicans have pounced on the scandal.
“Where there is smoke there is fire and, given that three of Mayor Ganim’s campaign workers from his last election have been referred to the Chief State’s Attorney for criminal prosecution for absentee ballot fraud, I’d say the smoke is actually a full-blown raging inferno,” Republican State Party Chair Ben Proto said.