State Lawmakers to Debate Election Reforms on Monday


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STAMFORD – There is bipartisan support in Hartford this legislative session for measures that would improve the integrity of Connecticut elections.

Democrats and Republicans, however, differ on the details.

Both are backing bills aimed at fixing problems exposed by the mayoral race in Bridgeport, where the court ordered a redo of the primary and invalidated the results of the November election amid allegations of absentee ballot fraud.

Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas, a Democrat whose office oversees elections, said Friday that some of the bills include proposals from her office that would “close loopholes observed by our election monitors.”

One, House Bill 5498, “is a comprehensive election security bill,” Thomas said in a statement. 

The 48-page bill has 16 provisions designed to tighten election procedures in Connecticut. Because of the case in Bridgeport, several of the provisions concern absentee ballots.

Among them are proposals to require:

  • That video cameras record activity at absentee ballot drop boxes
  • That town clerks record whether absentee ballots come to them by mail, from a drop box, in person by the voter, or in person by a qualified substitute
  • That limits be set for who may apply for additional absentee ballots
  • That parameters be set for how long absentee ballot applications are distributed
  • That town clerks track absentee ballots in the state’s voter registration system

An “I” is not a “U”

House Bill 5498, introduced by the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, also contains a proposal that would prohibit political parties from using “independent” and similar words in their names. 

The proposal came from Thomas’s office, said Democratic State Rep. Matt Blumenthal of District 147 in Stamford. It’s intended to make things clear for voters who confuse “independent” and “unaffiliated,” said Blumenthal, the GAE committee co-chair.

Many voters are not aware that if they wish to be unaffiliated with a political party, they cannot register as independent because Connecticut has an Independent Party, Blumenthal said.

The Secretary of the State’s office was hearing from people who reported that “when they go to register to vote, they accidentally register as independent when they intended to register as unaffiliated,” Blumenthal said. 

It creates a problem for those voters if they then decide that they want to join one of the two major parties so they can participate in a primary, which mostly happens in a presidential election year like 2024. Unaffiliated voters are not allowed to vote in primaries in Connecticut.

But you can’t immediately vote when you switch from one party to another. There’s a three-month waiting period.

“When they registered as independent, they became a member of the Independent Party,” Blumenthal said. “So they have to re-register and then wait 90 days to vote.”

Sharing voter data

Other measures in House Bill 5498 are designed to protect voters.

To maintain its centralized voter registration system, the Connecticut secretary of the state shares voter information with other states. It happens, for example, when someone moves between states. A provision in the bill would require that certain voter information provided by other states be kept confidential. 

Another provision would prohibit commercial use of certain voter registration information.

Yet another would prohibit candidates from being present during early voting – which Connecticut will offer for the first time this year – and during election-day registration of voters, and from places where absentee ballots are being counted.

Still another provision concerns complaints made by voters who observe something questionable during an election. The complaints go to the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which investigates then refers serious ones to the chief state’s attorney for possible prosecution. Complaints in the past have languished; the bill would set a deadline for referring complaints from the commission to prosecutors.  

Thomas’ office did not respond to a request for comment, but in the statement issued Friday she said that a separate bill, 441, introduced in the Senate, proposes formation of a 17-member board to address problems that fall into the gap between her office and the State Elections Enforcement Commission. The board would mandate training for election workers, implement best practices, and monitor elections, according to the statement.

Republicans weigh in

GOP lawmakers are also focusing on election integrity.

House Republicans have introduced Senate Bill 390, which would mandate a year in prison for anyone found guilty of criminal election violations.

State Rep. Vincent Candelora of District 86, Republican leader of the state House of Representatives, said his party has pushed for election reforms for years “but it fell on deaf ears” in the Democrat-controlled legislature.

“Democrats get to decide the election process, but it should not be a partisan process,” Candelora said. “That’s why we see issues like Bridgeport crop up – we don’t have a bipartisan approach to election law.”

After years of allegations about the mishandling of absentee ballots in Bridgeport, the results of September’s Democratic primary race between incumbent Mayor Joe Ganim and opponent John Gomes were thrown out when a judge reviewed videotape showing two Ganim supporters stuffing what appeared to be absentee ballots into a drop box. 

Reports of wrongdoing include that absentee ballots were sent to voters who did not request them; that campaign workers “helped” voters fill out absentee ballots; and that campaigns offered voters cash in return for completed ballots. Ganim has denied knowledge of any improprieties.

Ganim won the do-over primary in January, and the special election on Feb. 27. Ganim, who was imprisoned for seven years on federal felony corruption charges related to his time in office, was mayor from 1991 to 2003. After prison, he was elected mayor again in 2015, and has been in office since then.

Not ‘far enough’

The reforms that Democrats are proposing now “don’t go far enough,” Candelora said. 

“Our criminal penalties are not significant. No one in Bridgeport has been arrested,” he said. “The impact on election integrity is phenomenal, and yet we’re not going to hold anyone accountable. It’s crazy.”

Republican State Sen. Rob Sampson of District 16, a ranking member of the GAE committee, said this session’s election reform bills were crafted “with far too little input from Republicans.”

During a special legislative session in September, for example, “I tried to get rid of drop boxes,” Sampson said. “Putting video surveillance on them is almost meaningless.”

It’s because drop boxes don’t stop “ballot harvesting” – the gathering and submitting of completed absentee ballots by someone other than the voter.

“When they were ballot harvesting in Bridgeport, they were putting them in drop boxes. But they could just as well have dropped them in a post office box or at town hall,” Sampson said. 

Another problem is that Connecticut allows mass mailing of absentee ballot applications, and for voters to get them online, he said.

“Political campaigns compete with each other for how many they can mail out to their targeted supporters,” Sampson said. “I support voter access, but we are creating opportunity for bad actors to interfere with the process.”

Sampson said he’s waiting to see which bills get a hearing and which get a vote, a process controlled by Democrats.

Blumenthal said House Bill 5498 is a mix of proposals from the secretary of the state and members of the GAE committee.

“It’s a work in progress,” Blumenthal said. “We want to pass a measure on election security and transparency that addresses the situation we saw in Bridgeport this fall. It depends on what we hear in the public hearing and from other stakeholders.”

A public hearing on House Bill 5498 is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Monday. You can watch it here.

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.