FAIRFIELD – An argument about the rules and integrity of the recount process broke out Tuesday afternoon between the head moderator and two key political figures while recanvass officials were recounting the ballots from the Nov. 7 election – which named Democratic challenger Bill Gerber the victor over Republican First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick by 42 votes.
The head moderator, Democrat Peter Hood, split the recanvass officials into six separate stations in the gymnasium of the Bigelow Center for Senior Activities Tuesday morning. Per state guidelines, each station had six volunteers from both political parties – a Democrat and Republican to check the ballots, a Democrat and Republican to insert ballots into tabulators, and a Democrat and Republican to observe the process.
Facing each station, the observers sat behind a taped line, just a few feet away from the checkers. While the onlookers were not close enough to the ballots to plainly read them, Hood pointed the camera of a phone or a tablet at each table so the observers could see a live, zoomed-in view of the ballots.
But the observers’ limited view, some Republicans claimed, violated state law.
The short spat began when Steven Sheinberg, Fairfield’s Democratic Town Committee chair, called on Hood to reprimand a Republican observer who had crossed the taped line to talk to a recanvass official.
Before Hood could respond, Ben Proto, Chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, spoke up. The real issue, he said, is that observers were stationed too far away from the ballots to properly examine them.
“Observers get to stand there and see every ballot. They can’t see it from here,” Proto shouted. “This is complete violation of the law.”
As Proto and Sheinberg argued about the alleged violations, Hood walked over to reprimand the two. If they continued to create a disturbance, he said, they would be asked to leave.
“It’s not of any interest to me what you’re arguing about,” Hood said. “You guys can take that outside and fight all you want.”
Before the argument, Proto explained his concern to CT Examiner. He said he tried to talk to election officials about the observers’ position, but they “didn’t care.”
In response to CT Examiner’s request for clarification prior to publication, The Secretary of the State’s Director of Communications Tara Chozet said a recent change ensured that observers should have a view of the ballots, but does not specify where they should be positioned.
“The legislature recently updated the statutory language around this during Special Session on September 26. The law reads (in part): “Any party representative present shall have a right to view each ballot as it is being recanvassed by the recanvass officials, so as to be able to discern the markings on such ballot,” Chozet said.
Melissa Longo, chair of Fairfield’s Republican Town Committee, told CT Examiner that in prior municipal recounts, observers were allowed to stand behind the checkers’ shoulders to get a better view of the ballots. She said she was wary of the live feed offered by the moderator as an alternative.
“I don’t necessarily agree with the iPad and phone thing because it’s personal property. It does not belong to the town,” Longo said “That concerns me. That’s never been done before.”
Longo said it’s important that the town has a fair election this year – especially given the alleged election fraud in Bridgeport’s mayoral race, and the recent investigation into Fairfield’s ballot security.
Late last week, state and local police responded to a report of a broken window screen at the Fairfield senior center, where ballots were being stored in anticipation of the recount. Police ultimately found no evidence of a crime, and said a cobweb outside of the window proved that there had been no recent attempts to break into the building.
Despite concerns from Republicans, Sheinberg told CT Examiner on Tuesday that the recount is well-organized and fair.
“As you can see, it’s a transparent process. It seems to be going smoothly,” Sheinberg said. “We hope that the outcome on election night will be confirmed today after the recount.”
Sectioned behind a long piece of caution tape, Sheinberg, Longo and Proto were joined by attendees like state Rep. Jennifer Leeper, D-Fairfield, current and former town officials and campaign managers. Absent from the recount on Tuesday afternoon were the two first selectman candidates.
In an earlier phone call with CT Examiner, Gerber said he did not plan to attend the recount, but trusted the recanvass officials to follow state guidelines.
“I know there’s good people on our side. They’re not going to let anything get too out of hand,” Gerber said.
Unless there was a major issue with the original tally of the votes on election day, Gerber added, he expects to come out ahead.
Kupchick sent a statement to CT Examiner on Tuesday, explaining that she is refraining from making any comment on the outcome of the election until the recount is complete.
Attendees of the recount said they are unsure how long the process will take, considering that the recanvass officials are also conducting a recount of the RTM District 2 and constable races.