During last week’s Democratic primary in Bridgeport, challenger Marcus Brown appeared to beat longtime incumbent Jack Hennessy by five votes in a battle for a District 127 seat in the State House of Representatives.
In the low-turnout primary, Brown won 579 votes and Hennessy won 574.
But by state law, a recount is triggered if one candidate beats another candidate by fewer than 20 votes, or within .5 percent. In the District 127 Democratic primary, the difference was five votes, or .4 percent.
So, on Tuesday, Bridgeport election officials recounted.
It only made things worse.
First, the recount flipped the result. It determined that Hennessy had 567 votes, and Brown 566 votes.
Now Hennessy is the victor by one vote.
But not so fast.
The total number of votes tallied on primary day, Aug. 9, was 1,153. But the tally for that race on recount day was 1,133, or 20 votes fewer.
Where did 20 votes go in the week between the primary and the recount?
A check of the absentee ballots revealed 403 tallied on primary day but only 394 on recount day.
So nine absentee ballots were missing. Bridgeport election officials stopped Tuesday’s recount to look for the absentee ballots, but didn’t find them.
Still, election officials declared Hennessy, 71, an 18-year incumbent, the winner over Brown, 31, a Bridgeport city councilman.
But Brown doesn’t trust the process or the result, and wants a State Superior Court judge to decide. Under Connecticut law, a candidate may challenge an election result if there is reason to believe an error occurred.
He has reason, Brown said.
“The head moderator said he believes nine ballots are missing, but there is a 20-vote difference between the number from the primary and the number from the recount,” Brown said Wednesday. “We think about 12 more ballots are missing on top of what the moderator believes.”
He questions not only the count but whether the primary was “a free and fair election,” particularly as it concerns absentee ballots, Brown said.
“The numbers show I won the walk-in vote overwhelmingly, but the absentee ballots were overwhelmingly in support of my opponent,” Brown said.
Democrats typically vote by absentee ballot more than Republicans, but this was a primary among Democrats.
“There should have been a very similar return rate on absentee ballots between me and my opponent, but somehow his voters sent absentee ballots back at a much higher rate than my voters did,” Brown said. “The entire process was a little shady.”
The district has a good number of senior-citizen complexes, he said, “and the rule is you are not allowed to solicit voters door to door. You are not allowed in the buildings without management approval, and you have to set up a meeting and invite seniors down to talk to them,” Brown said. “We followed the rules.”
He believes his opponent’s campaign went door to door in senior-citizen complexes, Brown said.
“They went to four high-rise senior or mixed-use buildings, they took out an exceptionally high number of absentee ballot applications, and they got a high return rate for those ballots,” Brown said. “The Jewish Center had 50 new voter registrations, 50 absentee ballots were requested, and 45 were returned. That’s unheard of.”
Hennessy emailed a statement saying the process worked – Bridgeport’s independent election monitor was present for the recount and did not object when the moderator announced the winner.
“I am pleased to have prevailed in the mandated recount. I hope that the city attorney will defend the result of the recount in the event of a court challenge,” Hennessy wrote. “I call upon my opponent to accept the verdict rendered by the people of the 127th District, and to honor the democratic process by accepting the results of the recount, and not put the City of Bridgeport through the trauma of a judicial proceeding.”
The court is the remedy for such disputes, according to Connecticut law. It states that any candidate “aggrieved by a ruling of an election official in connection with any primary … may bring his complaint to any judge of the Superior Court for appropriate action.”
A complaint must be brought to a judge no more than 14 days after the primary. The judge then holds a hearing within five days. If the evidence warrants, the judge “may order any voting tabulators to be unlocked or any ballot boxes to be opened and a recount of the votes cast, including absentee ballots, to be made.”
The judge may order a new primary if it’s determined that an error could have changed the election results.
Desmond Conner, spokesman for the Secretary of the State, the office that oversees elections, said that, other than a court filing, a candidate may contact the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which investigates complaints.
SEEC spokesman Josh Foley said Wednesday the agency “is actively monitoring the situation.”
The District 127 House seat is at stake. Bridgeport is heavily Democratic, so whoever wins that party’s primary usually wins the November election.
Brown said the outcome of the primary is the immediate problem, and Connecticut’s absentee ballot system is the long-term problem. In Stamford, for example, former Democratic Party chief John Mallozzi is in the middle of a trial on charges he forged 14 absentee ballots in the 2015 municipal election.
The former town clerk admitted in court that she gave Mallozzi the ballots. By law, a town clerk may give an absentee ballot only to the voter who requests it and is validated to use it.
Critics have said the absentee ballot program needs greater oversight, especially since the state expanded it during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we run a new primary, I am confident I will win, and I will go to Hartford and look at this process,” Brown said. “Because something is not right about the entire process.”
Conner sent a statement from Secretary of the State Mark Kohler saying the office maintains “a strong level of confidence in the existing process,” but “this is an issue that the person elected to the position in November may want to consider, since it will be the new secretary that would need to pursue any such changes with the legislature.”
Connecticut residents will elect a new Secretary of the State on Nov. 8. Kohler, who is filling in after the former secretary resigned June 30, will not be a candidate. The Democratic candidate is Stephanie Thomas, a state representative from District 143. The Republican candidate is Dominic Rapini, a senior account manager at Apple.