Republicans Propose 1-Year Prison Sentences for Election Law Violations in Connecticut

State Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, speaks at the Government Administration and Elections public hearing on March 13, 2024 (Screenshot).


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HARTFORD — Spurred by numerous election fraud allegations in Bridgeport’s recent mayoral race, Republicans have introduced legislation calling for minimum one-year prison sentences for people who violate state election laws. 

The bill — sponsored by State Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Waterbury, and State Reps. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, Greg Howard, R-Stonington, and Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Southington — would apply to individuals who purposefully attempt to deny or manipulate votes, ballots and petitions, election officials who willfully neglect their duties, and those who unlawfully fill out or submit absentee ballots.

The state currently considers willful violations of election laws, such as voter bribery or fraudulent absentee ballot applications, as class D felonies punishable by one to five years in prison or a fine up to $5,000, or both. 

But according to State Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, those found guilty of election law violations rarely, if ever, receive prison sentences. During a Government Administration and Elections Committee public hearing on Wednesday, he mentioned Bridgeport’s Democratic Town Committee Chair Wanda Geter-Pataky, who was caught on security footage seemingly stuffing ballots into a city drop box ahead of the Sept. 12 primary. The incident resulted in a court order for a new set of elections. 

“The individual I just referenced, who stuffed absentee ballots into a ballot box, was just reelected last night as vice chair of her local party committee,” Perillo said. “It wasn’t punished — it was celebrated and rewarded.”

Under the proposed bill, however, those found guilty of a class D felony would, in most cases, receive a minimum one-year prison sentence that cannot be suspended or reduced.

Along with Perillo, the entire House Republican Caucus, State Elections Enforcement Commission Executive Director Michael Brandi, and the Connecticut Republican Assembly — a 600-member political organization — backed the proposal in testimony submitted ahead of the committee meeting.

Ranking committee member Mastrofrancesco maintained that the bill is a “perfect solution” to combat continued election fraud.

“Obviously, our laws on the books are not working. I think this piece of legislation is very, very significant,” she said on Wednesday. “I honestly can’t see how anybody would be opposed to it because what we’re doing right now is not working.”

But some — including Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas, state Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, and former Bridgeport mayoral candidate John Gomes — either opposed or hesitated to back the bill.

While Thomas advocated for stronger measures to deter election fraud, she opposed the measure due to concerns about its potential consequences for election workers, insufficient public awareness of state election laws, and its overall impact.

During a time when election workers are already under “heavy scrutiny,” Thomas said, mandatory minimum prison sentences may have a negative effect on recruitment efforts. 

Under the proposal, election officials could go to prison for intentionally manipulating tabulators, changing votes or knowingly signing off on false results at the close of polls. But Thomas argued that ordering prison time for election workers and first-time offenders for accidental violations could be harmful to the state election system.

“Imposing mandatory minimum sentences for some of these actions that could, in effect, be inadvertent or accidental, places an undue burden on them,” she said.

Because there is little public awareness as to what constitutes an election law violation, Thomas added, it could be difficult for a judge to prove that someone intentionally committed fraud. 

In the case of the latest Bridgeport election, several campaign workers accused of absentee ballot fraud claimed they were unaware of or misinterpreted an election law when obtaining absentee ballot applications and submitting ballots. 

“We have seen this play out in some of the confusion around the absentee ballot return process in recent elections. And while ignorance of the law is not sufficient excuse for breaking it, it does present a mitigating factor for a judge to consider when levying penalties,” Thomas said.

It’s also unclear if the proposed prison sentence would significantly reduce violations, she noted, as the bill’s sponsors did not provide any relevant data. 

‘Our laws need to have teeth’

Gomes, who lost to Mayor Joe Ganim in all four Bridgeport elections and sued local and state election officials over alleged absentee ballot misuse, told CT Examiner on Friday that the bill is a step in the right direction. However, he said, campaign workers will continue to violate election laws so long as the state refuses to press charges.

Gomes pointed to the 2019 Bridgeport mayoral race. Like the 2023 election, Ganim’s then-opponent, Moore, accused Geter-Pataky and two others of illegally gathering and submitting absentee ballots. The SEEC investigated the matter for about four years before referring the case to the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney for potential criminal charges last summer. But as of last December, the criminal investigation was reportedly still underway.

Without a swift conviction process, Gomes said, Bridgeport voters will continue to question whether their votes actually matter.

“You could have all the laws you want in the book, but if nothing is being done, what happens to it? Nothing,” he said.

Moore similarly criticized the current prosecution process on Friday, but hesitated to express support for the Republicans’ bill. She instead referenced other election reform proposals under consideration this legislative session.

“Penalties are very important, but we need to be prosecuting these crimes more quickly and more regularly,” she said. “There’s a public hearing on some bills Monday in the Government Administration and Elections Committee that could help speed up the process.”

On Monday, the committee is set to hear testimony on a Senate bill that looks to establish a Municipal Accountability Board to oversee elections, and a House bill that proposes reform for matters like municipal video surveillance, absentee ballot receipts, election data confidentiality and party designations. Thomas has publicly backed both of those measures.

Mastrofrancesco said she has long called for election reform by way of requiring identification to cast a ballot and verifying signatures on absentee ballots. On Wednesday, she urged her fellow legislators to support the latest bill, maintaining that the one-year prison sentence would discourage future violations.

“Voting fraud, whether it is the stuffing of ballot boxes or fraudulent signatures on absentee ballots, continues to occur in Connecticut and it needs to be addressed. SB 390 does that,” she said. “Right now, bad actors keep breaking our election laws because they have no fear of going to jail. Our laws need to have teeth so people will think twice before they engage in this activity. It is the only way to stop it. The penalties must be significant because our elections are too important to put in jeopardy.”

Ganim and Bridgeport’s state representatives — Democrats Andre Baker, Fred Gee, Marcus Brown, Christopher Rosario, Steven Stafstrom, Antonie Felipe and Cristin McCarthy Vahey — did not respond to requests for comment on the bill. A spokesperson for State Sen. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport, said on Friday that Gaston has not yet reviewed the proposal.