It’s called “getting Bridgeported.”
John Gomes says it happened to him during the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, when he went up against Mayor Joe Ganim for the city’s top seat.
Candidates are “Bridgeported” when they win an election at the polling places, but are overtaken when the absentee ballots are counted, Gomes said.
State Sen. Marilyn Moore says it happened to her when she challenged Ganim for the mayoral seat in the 2019 Democratic primary.
“People say, ‘You got Bridgeported,’” Gomes said. “It’s something that, unfortunately, has been accepted as the norm. Races are won in the absentee ballots.”
Gomes filed a lawsuit that is holding up certification of Ganim’s 251-vote primary win. Gomes was ahead until the absentee ballots went for Ganim in a proportion of almost two to one.
A similar thing happened in the Democratic primary four years ago, when Ganim beat Moore by 270 votes. Moore was ahead until the absentee ballots went for Ganim in a proportion of three to one.
But the Gomes campaign has something in 2023 that the Moore campaign did not have in 2019 – surveillance video that appears to show a woman shoving absentee ballots into a drop box outside the Bridgeport Government Center a week before the primary.
Ignore the camera
Gomes, like Moore before him, has charged that absentee balloting in the primary was fraudulent. Like Moore, Gomes had no evidence – until someone gave him the video.
“Police had it days before the primary, and nothing came of it,” Gomes said Wednesday. “I think I received that video because people are tired of what is going on. They’re saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”
The power of “the visual” cannot be overstated, Moore said Wednesday. “People can see someone breaking the law.”
In 2019, “I couldn’t get people to pay attention,” Moore said. “But this video plays over and over in my mind. How blatant and bold she was, knowing there are cameras.”
The woman in the video is believed to be Wanda Geter-Pataky, a Ganim supporter and vice chair of Bridgeport’s Democratic Town Committee who Moore said has a city job as a greeter in the Bridgeport Government Center.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission recently completed an absentee ballot fraud investigation of the 2019 Ganim campaign, including his primary race against Moore. The SEEC referred three people, including Geter-Pataky, to the chief state’s attorney’s office to consider criminal charges.
“If that’s her in the video, she put those ballots in the drop box knowing she was under investigation,” Moore said. “That tells me she believes that others who are complicit in this will erase or ignore the surveillance tapes.”
Voters like mailing it in
Mail-in absentee ballots have determined the outcomes of Bridgeport’s 2022 Democratic primary for state representative in District 127, the 2019 mayoral Democratic primary, and the 2019 special election for state representative in District 130, Gomes said.
In most towns, the number of applications voters request for absentee ballots is a few hundred, Gomes said. Not so in Bridgeport, he said.
“In a municipal election where the turnout is 11,000 voters, there will be 4,000 absentee ballot applications,” said Gomes, Bridgeport’s former chief administrative officer.
For all those applications, voters cast just over 2,600 absentee ballots in the Ganim-Gomes primary.
Now those ballots are being analyzed, along with about 2,000 hours of drop box surveillance video, as part of Gomes’ lawsuit against Ganim, the Bridgeport town clerk and Democratic registrar, and Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas.
The suit asks a Superior Court judge to decertify the Sept. 12 results, and either schedule a new primary or place Gomes on the Nov. 7 ballot as a Democratic candidate. Gomes said he’s on a lower ballot line now as an Independent Party candidate.
The suit alleges that absentee ballots were deposited in drop boxes by someone other than the applicant or a designee; that voters were given absentee ballots that they did not apply for; that voters got help completing ballots from campaign workers who did not acknowledge their assistance; and that ballots were improperly returned by people not allowed to do so.
Connecticut election law mandates that voters drop off their completed absentee ballots themselves, or designate a family member, caregiver, police officer or election official to do it for them.
Give a vote, get a rebate
Bridgeport’s problems with absentee ballots are expansive, Moore said.
“When I ran in 2019, I witnessed the Ganim campaign linking absentee ballots to the rent rebate program,” Moore said. “These political operatives would go into senior citizen and public housing complexes and tell people they had to vote by absentee ballot, then say, ‘When I come back for your ballot I will bring your application for the renter’s rebate.’ The residents of these buildings believe these political operatives are trusted messengers. People think, ‘They bring me pizza, donuts, coffee. They won’t do anything mean to me. Why wouldn’t I listen to them?’”
In 2020 Bridgeport City Councilman Marcus Brown won the Democratic Town Committee’s nomination and challenged Moore, then a three-term incumbent, for her state Senate seat.
As the party insider, Brown had access to the senior and public housing complexes, and she did not, Moore said.
“There was only one reason he didn’t beat me that year – COVID-19,” Moore said. “They couldn’t get into the buildings because of COVID. So people in the buildings weren’t pressured, and voted the way they wanted.”
Best place for a monitor
On Tuesday the state legislature, meeting in special session, approved funding for an election monitor for Bridgeport. But Gomes said the legislature fell short by not imposing stricter penalties for election abuse or taking measures to enforce absentee ballot rules.
“Elections have to be supervised in senior citizen and public housing buildings because of the concentration of absentee ballots that are pulled for those buildings,” Gomes said. “Adding monitors at polling places would be great, but the biggest concern is with absentee ballots.”
Rowena White, who handles communications for the Ganim campaign, said Wednesday that the mayor and his election team “are looking forward to any type of review and monitoring system the state puts in place. We are also for an election process that is transparent and that maintains integrity so that each person feels their vote is valued.”
White said the Gomes campaign is “deflecting and placing blame when their own campaign has its own issues.”
She was referencing an incident involving City Councilwoman Maria Pereira, who ran for reelection in the primary as one of a group of candidates backing Gomes.
According to Hearst Connecticut Media, Pereira is being investigated by Bridgeport police after someone filed a complaint that she had entered an apartment in a public housing complex for seniors.
Pereira told Hearst she brings groceries to the woman in the apartment and was helping her request an absentee ballot. She did nothing wrong, Pereira said.
‘A deep, deep wound’
White said Ganim’s opponents are maligning election procedures.
“Members of the Gomes campaign and their supporters are misrepresenting the absentee ballot process at large and casting doubt among members of the community who need to utilize the process in order to make their vote count,” White said.
Gomes said that, since the problems with absentee voting surfaced, support for his campaign has been overwhelming.
“More volunteers are coming through the door, and we are working to also turn that into financial support,” Gomes said. “This is not about my campaign any more. It’s about a blatant disregard for the civil rights of everyone in Bridgeport.”
Democrats who wield power in Bridgeport and the state need to speak out about the abuse of absentee balloting, Gomes said.
The problem keeps arising, but the response is wanting, Moore said.
“I knew political people were going into senior facilities with ballot applications, but I had no idea that the residents are being intimidated into signing ballots,” Moore said. “This is getting more sophisticated. We can’t put a Band-Aid on a deep, deep wound. This wound requires surgery.”