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Connecticut election laws upheld after judge nixes Muad Hrezi’s challenge

Muad Hrezi talking to reporters outside Hartford Superior Court in June. At right is his lawyer, Alex Taubes.
Mark Pazniokas
CT Mirror
Muad Hrezi talking to reporters outside Hartford Superior Court in June. At right is his lawyer, Alex Taubes.

A Superior Court judge has rejected a constitutional challenge of Connecticut’s election laws and denied an effort by Muad Hrezi to qualify for a Democratic primary against U.S. Representative John B. Larson in the 1st District of Hartford and its suburbs.

In a decision filed Tuesday, Judge Cesar A. Noble rejected Hrezi’s request for an order that likely would have forced a special primary, given that ballots already are printed for the August 9 primary.

Hrezi claimed his failure to secure sufficient signatures to qualify was a consequence of mistakes by state and local election officials, and he also challenged the constitutionality of the qualification rules.

After an expedited hearing in June, the judge found no evidence of wrongdoing by the secretary of the state’s office or local officials. In a 50-page decision released Tuesday, Noble also rejected Hrezi’s constitutional claims.

The challenge was the latest in a series of political and legal efforts over decades to reform what was one of the nation’s most challenging systems for office seekers who did not have the support of the party establishment.

U.S. District Judge Peter C. Dorsey declared in January 2003 that the sole path to a primary for statewide office or multi-town legislative districts — winning 15% of party convention vote — was unconstitutionally burdensome.

Noble’s ruling Tuesday affirmed the constitutionality of the two-track system adopted in response to Dorsey: Either winning 15% at a convention, or petitioning for a place on a primary ballot.

To qualify after getting little support at the convention in May, Hrezi needed the signatures of 3,833 registered Democrats — 2% of the party’s enrollment in the district. He fell short.

Hrezi, a 27-year-old progressive Muslim and former Capitol Hill staffer who was trying to emulate the successes of liberal outsiders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said Wednesday the system may be constitutional, but it is still in need of revision.

“There should only be one track for everyone. It should be the signatures,” Hrezi said. “The court overruled the convention process back in 2003, and now we’ve created two tracks — one where incumbents and party insiders get the really easy way out.”

The system is challenging but hardly impossible for an outsider. With no political background, Bob Stefanowski skipped the Republican nominating convention in 2018 and won the primary for governor as a petitioning candidate.

But no one has qualified for a primary in Connecticut against a member of the U.S. House, and primaries are rarer than in other states.

“So I think having only one method, that being a petition process, would make sure that it’s a fair process if incumbents, challengers, everyone has to achieve the same level of support before they get on the ballot,” Hrezi said.

In 2002, Dorsey ordered Connecticut to open its primary, concluding that a legal challenge to the state’s election laws was likely to prevail. He was overruled by an appeals court on technical grounds. His ruling the following January was not appealed.

Earlier, Connecticut had required 20% of a convention vote to qualify — a standard that protected Governor William A. O’Neill from challenges for the Democratic nomination from two liberals, state House Speaker Ernest Abate in 1982 and former Congressman Toby Moffett in 1986.

Hrezi raised more than $500,000 this year, seemingly more than enough to hire sufficient staff to collect the required signatures.

But Hrezi’s collection effort was delayed by the two days it took to obtain the petition forms after he filed the papers to get them on April 26, the first day they were available.

The judge noted that he could have got the forms on the same day had he simply waited for them at the secretary of the state’s office. Instead, Hrezi asked the office on April 28 to email them.

Hrezi also complained that signatures were rejected because they filed in two towns after the deadline of 4 p.m. June 7. The judge noted Hrezi acknowledged missing the deadline and cited no statute giving officials the discretion to accept them.

The tight labor market blunted the usefulness of his fundraising, Hrezi said Wednesday.

“We were willing to spend the money,” he said. “I mean, we told the judge … here’s the job postings. We put it up on Indeed. We put it up on all these websites. And people just don’t want to do this job. I mean, people would come and do it for a day, kind of get trained and then not show up again.”

The campaign offered $20 an hour, then $30.

“Maybe if I paid them $100, now they would have done it,” Hrezi said. “But at some point it becomes absurd when you have to pay for signatures, so we just really went after trying to get volunteers and just trying to get it done with the team we had.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.