Independents Fight Against Election Bill Seeking Party Name Change 

Connecticut Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas (CT Examiner).


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HARTFORD — Independent Party leaders, candidates and their supporters vehemently opposed an election reform bill on Monday that would, in part, prohibit the use of their party name in what bill proponents say is an effort to avoid voter confusion.

Amid concerns of rampant absentee ballot fraud in Bridgeport, a proposed House bill largely looks to improve election integrity by requiring video surveillance on ballot drop boxes, keeping certain voter data confidential and limiting who can apply for additional absentee ballots.

But on Monday, leaders of both state and municipal Independent parties criticized the inclusion of a clause requiring that any political party using terms like “independent,” “unaffiliated,” or “unenrolled” in its name must register under a new name by Jan. 1.

Independent Party of Connecticut Chairman Michael Telesca questioned the need for the change during a public hearing of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, which introduced the bill last week.

“There is no good reason to take our name away from us unless you want to destroy our party and deny the voters a real third party on the ballot,” Telesca said.

Granted ballot access in 2008, the state Independent Party has amassed 29,515 registered voters, run statewide candidates like Rob Hotaling for governor and Stewart Beckett for lieutenant governor in 2022, and won seats on many local boards and commissions.

When asked about the purpose of the clause on Monday, Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas explained that some residents accidentally register with the Independent Party when they mean to register as unaffiliated, which she said can lead to voter disenfranchisement.

Ahead of presidential primaries, she said, affiliated voters who want to change their party designation must do so at least three months before the election, while unaffiliated voters may choose a party one month prior. Thomas said members of the Independent Party who assume they are unaffiliated are often upset to discover they’ve missed the deadline to change their registration ahead of a primary.

“A lot of people mix up independent and unaffiliated,” Thomas said. “Some of it is a natural problem, because in most of the country, what we call ‘unaffiliated,’ it’s called ‘independent.’”

States such as Delaware, Florida, Nevada and California also have their own Independent Parties with ballot access. But in most states, Thomas said, the term “independent” often signifies nonpartisanship.

Thomas maintained that the proposed change is not a move to eliminate the party and she said she’d consider other ways to minimize confusion. 

But many questioned Thomas’s testimony, suggesting that the proposal was meant to stifle Independents and return votes to the Democratic and Republican parties.

‘Undemocratic’ and ‘disingenuous’

Bridgeport’s former Democratic State Representative Jack Hennessy called the clause “illegal,” “a rat” and “undemocratic.” And as a public supporter of unsuccessful Bridgeport mayoral candidate John Gomes, he questioned the timing of the bill.

“Could this be a partisan retaliation for the embarrassment that top state Democratic Party leaders had to file into Bridgeport at the behest of DTC Chair [Mario] Testa to endorse a certain incumbent Democratic mayor from the challenge of a cross-endorsed Independent Party candidate?” Hennessy asked.

After losing to Ganim in a court-ordered Democratic primary redo, Gomes decided to run as an Independent candidate in the Feb. 27 general election, setting the fourth race between Ganim and Gomes in motion. But ahead of the last election, Testa called on top Democrats to back Ganim, seemingly igniting last-minute endorsements from Gov. Ned Lamont., and U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal.

Rather than usurping a third party’s naming rights to quash competition in municipalities like Bridgeport, Hennessy said, the state should educate voters about party affiliation and strengthen election law.

Lisa Brinton, chair of Norwalk’s Independent Party, said the group had become the third-largest party in Connecticut and earned votes for candidates like Gomes, who won 40% votes in November, and Democratic Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons, whose Independent Party endorsement in 2021 resulted in 680 votes toward her 1,505-vote win. 

Brinton called Thomas’ reasoning for the change “disingenuous” and suggested that the proposal is meant to hinder the party’s growth as it gains name recognition.

“Killing the recognized name and making a start all over is punitive. It’s the wrong message at the wrong time and likely unconstitutional, violating freedom of speech and freedom of assembly under the First Amendment,” she said.

Rather than stripping away the party’s name, Brinton and others suggested that the state instead fix its voter registration form.

Under the current mail-in voter registration form, residents who wish to enroll in a political party can choose “Democratic,” “Republican,” or fill in their preferred party on the line beside “Other.” 

In his written testimony to the committee, Independent Guilford Co-Chair Michael Mikolay said confusion between “independent” and “unaffiliated” is a mistake made by voters, not the party. To stop the “exceedingly small number of voters” from accidentally registering with the Independent Party, he said, the state should either improve the form or remove registration deadlines for third-party members.

“This is not a problem that should lead to the General Assembly stripping Independent Party chapters of the name that they have worked to develop and under which they have elected candidates to offices in Guilford and across the state,” Mikolay said. 

Deputy Secretary of the State Jacqueline Kozin told CT Examiner on Tuesday that modifying the registration form is an option, but said there’s still concern that confusion over the term “Independent” will continue due to its varied use nationwide. 

The state Independent Party Treasurer John Fahan, Bridgeport Independent Party Chair Wilfredo Martinez, former Independent New Haven mayoral candidate Tom Goldenberg and former Independent candidate Beckett also spoke against renaming the party.