STAMFORD – On Nov. 7, a high-interest issue, development, is on the ballot in what is usually a low-turnout election.
Voters will be asked to decide whether a number of changes to the city charter should become law.
Some of the charter changes have become contentious, evidenced by the proliferating lawn signs. The proposed changes are viewed that way because of how they might affect zoning.
Those who want charter change say residents will have a larger voice in decisions now made by a handful of planning and zoning board appointees. Those against charter change say it will stifle growth in the state’s fastest-growing city.
In a typical municipal election, perhaps a fifth of the city’s 75,000 active voters turn up. With such a low total, a handful of votes can sway a race.
That pushes the focus toward absentee ballots.
In Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, the outcome of the Sept. 12 Democratic mayoral primary is in court, where a judge is weighing allegations of absentee ballot fraud.
In another Connecticut courtroom, the former Democratic Party chief of Stamford, the state’s second-largest city, is appealing his conviction last year on charges of absentee ballot forgery.
Connecticut’s absentee ballot system, whether by rule or by practice, creates confusion.
Applications by the hundreds
Sworn statements submitted in the Bridgeport case, for example, show a system so corrupt that voters think it’s OK for political party operatives to bring voters absentee ballots, help voters fill out the ballots, then take the ballots with them. It’s not.
In the Stamford case, the former town clerk gave the party chief blank absentee ballots, which a judge has determined he forged. The party chief was arrested but the elected town clerk entrusted with the ballots was not charged.
The cases involving Connecticut’s two largest cities have revealed that political operatives take out hundreds, if not thousands, of applications for absentee ballots to mail to voters or to bring to nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, public housing and other apartment complexes.
Once information on the application is verified, the voter is issued a numbered absentee ballot. The voter may return the ballot by mail, place it in a designated drop box, or bring it to the town clerk.
In Stamford, the Democratic City Committee so far has taken out 3,700 absentee ballot applications for this municipal election, Town Clerk Lyda Ruijter said.
State election laws allow it, said Jillian Hirst, press secretary for the Connecticut Office of the Secretary of the State.
“Anyone can distribute five or more absentee ballot applications to persons other than the individual’s immediate family, but they must register with and obtain the forms, with the town name printed on them, from the town clerk,” Hirst said.
Robin Druckman, chair of the Stamford Democratic City Committee, did not say specifically what the party will do with hundreds and hundreds of applications for absentee ballots. The party abides by the rules, Druckman said.
“One of the primary functions of the Stamford Democratic Party is voter education, engagement and empowerment,” she said. “As such, we work in every election cycle to communicate with voters, and that includes those who vote by absentee ballot. Our goal is to provide voters with the information they need to make an informed choice at the ballot box.”
Party operatives “have to put a code on each application so I know when we get it back that it came through the party,” Ruijter said. “They have to give me a sheet listing the voters who received an application through them.”
So ‘we can trace it’
When her staff receives the form, Ruijter said, they check the information against the applicant’s birth date, address, and voter registration, and make sure the applicant has checked off a reason for requesting an absentee ballot. They are for people in active military service; people who will be out of town on election day; those who are sick or disabled; those whose religion forbids secular activity on election day; and election officials on duty.
“People often ask why we have to keep all this information,” Ruijter said. “The State Elections Enforcement Commission says it’s because if something goes wrong, we can trace it.”
Voters also may apply for absentee ballots on the Secretary of the State’s website, Ruijter said. Those applications are checked electronically against state Department of Motor Vehicles information, she said.
“The law says you can print only five applications for your family from the website, but nothing stops you from printing more,” Ruijter said. “It’s an honor system.”
Joseph Andreana Jr., chair of the Stamford Republican Town Committee, said his party has requested no absentee ballot applications for this election.
“We are not sending them to people unsolicited,” Andreana said. “We are encouraging people to apply for an absentee ballot on their own, if that’s what they need to do. Just be truthful and follow the rules. When used responsibly, absentee ballots are a valuable tool for getting out the vote.”
Used irresponsibly, they create lots of trouble.
Schemes and irregularities
In Bridgeport, Mayor Joe Ganim’s Democratic primary win is under challenge by John Gomes, who lost by 251 votes.
With the Nov. 7 election less than three weeks away, Gomes is before a state Superior Court judge seeking a new primary or a declaration that he is the winner. In last month’s primary, as in the 2019 Bridgeport mayoral primary, absentee ballots got Ganim the win.
Gomes is presenting evidence to the judge that includes security video showing Ganim supporters stuffing stacks of what appear to be absentee ballots into drop boxes. Gomes campaigners have submitted sworn statements saying voters told them that Ganim supporters filled out and took their absentee ballots; that Ganim supporters offered Section 8 housing vouchers in exchange for absentee ballots filled out for their candidate; that absentee ballots were returned by voters who do not exist; and more.
In the Stamford case, former party chief Mallozzi is appealing his conviction last year on 14 counts each of 2nd-degree forgery and making false statements in absentee balloting.
The fraud came to light during the 2015 municipal election, when a man was told at his polling place that he could not vote because he’d already filled out an absentee ballot. It turned out that an absentee ballot had been taken out in the man’s name without his knowledge. Investigators traced that absentee ballot, and others, to Mallozzi.
The trial record states that Mallozzi was involved in a “scheme” with former Republican Town Clerk Donna Loglisci, who admitted she broke the law by giving him ballots. Loglisci was never charged. Mallozzi’s attorney, Stephan Seeger, has said his client operated in a broken system that lends itself to “irregularities.”
What statisticians found
That jives with a conclusion reached by the American Statistical Association, which three years ago released a report exploring whether voting by mail increases the risk of fraud.
The statisticians identified a surge in absentee balloting over the last two decades, when it jumped from a tenth of all votes in a general election to nearly a quarter. In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, all 50 states allow voters to request a ballot by mail, according to the analysis.
Statisticians found “no evidence to suggest that voting by mail increases the risk of voter fraud overall.”
The data for Connecticut, for example, identified 222 reported cases of ballot fraud statewide between 2000 and 2020, an average of 11 cases a year. It’s statistically miniscule, and the number of cases involving absentee ballots is smaller.
The report’s conclusion, however, contained a caveat: “A large amount of fraud comes from primaries, and state and local elections,” which “typically have lower turnout,” it reads. “As a result, using the number of eligible voters in the most recent general election, as we do in this analysis, may understate the incidence of fraud.”
Critics have said for years that Connecticut’s mail-in voting system has too many holes. No one is watching, for example, when political parties go into senior citizen facilities at election time, Ruijter said.
“I don’t like that political operatives go to a home and target older people. It’s a process in the law I think we should fix,” Ruijter said. “The law applies to town clerks and registrars, not to the managers of nursing homes. They have no duty to keep politicians out.”
Registrars of voters used to provide supervised balloting for senior facilities and apartment buildings that submitted a certain number of absentee ballot requests, she said. In that procedure, registrars or their deputies, one from each party, brought ballots to the buildings and helped voters complete them without discussing candidates or issues, Ruijter said.
“There was no interference with their choices,” she said.
Supervised balloting stopped during the COVID epidemic, Ruijter said.
“Now we’re allowed to do it again but the registrars find it easier to have permanent absentee ballots,” in which qualified voters automatically get an absentee ballot each election without having to apply, Ruijter said. “At this point, Stamford has 720 permanent absentee ballot voters.”
Get the politics out
Absentee ballots likely will be key in the outcome of Stamford’s Nov. 7 election – and the hot debate over development.
One charter change on the ballot would prevent members of appointed boards from keeping their seats beyond the expiration of their terms. Members of the five-member planning and zoning boards remain even though their terms expired several years ago. It takes just three votes on the Zoning Board to decide whether a development project moves forward.
Another charter change would make it easier for the Board of Representatives to hire its own attorney, rather than rely on the city attorney, who is an appointee of the mayor. Other Connecticut cities have that provision for times when the legislative body and the executive office disagree on issues. It is of particular concern in Stamford, where citizens may appeal Zoning Board decisions to the Board of Representatives.
The leadership of the Democratic City Committee, which supports Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons’ pro-development stance, may include party or anti-charter literature with the 3,700 absentee ballot applications they will distribute to voters, Hirsh said. The only state requirement is that unsolicited applications include the absentee ballot eligibility requirements and warn that violators are subject to civil and criminal penalties.
State election law also states that:
- Absentee ballots may only be returned by the person who applied for it, or a family member, caregiver, police officer, or election official.
- Only the voter’s immediate family member or caregiver may help the voter complete an application or ballot.
- Someone who distributes an absentee ballot application cannot accept one they know to contain false information.
- No one may give or accept compensation for distributing absentee ballot applications.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission may levy a civil penalty up to $2,000 per offense for violation of absentee voting laws.
It is a class D felony for any person to possess the absentee ballot of an applicant to whom it was issued; for any candidate or agent of a candidate, political party or committee to be present when a voter fills out an absentee ballot; to commit a false statement in absentee balloting; or to misrepresent the eligibility requirements. The penalty for conviction of a class D felony is one to five years in prison, or a fine of up to $5,000, or both.
Ruijter said balloting must be divorced from politicking.
“I believe our goal has to be to limit political influence with absentee ballots,” she said.