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Breaking down Bridgeport’s absentee ballot problem

A Bridgeport resident brought protests voting fraud in front of Bridgeport's Government Center on Friday, Sept. 22.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
A Bridgeport resident brought protests voting fraud in front of Bridgeport's Government Center on Friday, Sept. 22.

The city of Bridgeport had a higher percentage of absentee ballots submitted for the September primary than any other municipality in the state. Why — and how — is that the case?

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Andrew Brown and José Luis Martínez to discuss their article, written with Katy Golvala and Dave Altimari, “How the battle for absentee ballots defined the Bridgeport election,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Andrew. I was in court with you covering mayoral candidate John Gomes' challenge to Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim’s win of September's Democratic primary, which was decided by about 251 absentee votes. Judge William Clark found that the primary was marred by shocking evidence of blatant ballot harvesting. Is that what prompted you to dig into this story and try and find out more about the city's absentee ballot process?

AB: Yeah. it was widely reported at the time, as kind of a national story, that it was shocking that a judge would set aside an entire election based on video evidence of people depositing absentee ballots into drop boxes. So the question that my colleagues, including Jose and I, had was what is the absentee process like in Bridgeport? And essentially what happened before the video evidence captured people putting absentee ballots into drop boxes or allegedly doing so? And so we set out to do that, to try to figure out what that system looks like and essentially, who was most involved in driving absentee votes in Bridgeport.

WSHU: Now, there were 4,300 ballots that were submitted in court as evidence. That's where you started from Jose, from those 4,300 ballots? And then you traced how they came about?

JLM: Yes, we had to really get organized. We had dozens of PDFs that were submitted as evidence into court, each of them with hundreds, sometimes even thousands of pages. And so we made a plan. There was a team of us. So we spent weeks just digitizing these forms, going field by field and putting them into a spreadsheet, so that we can prepare them for analysis.

WSHU: What does the analysis find?

JLM: So what we found was some of the people that were caught on surveillance video, were not the only ones that were involved in signing people up to vote absentee. There were a lot of other people that were involved in politics in Bridgeport that were assisting these voters. And we saw that from the time that an applicant signs one of these applications for an AB, from that moment, to the moment it's submitted to the clerk. It sometimes took over a month. And you know, we just looked at the signature date, and the date the clerk received it, which is a stamp on that application. That's just one of the few things that we found.

WSHU: What's the typical process for an absentee ballot? What was the discrepancy that you found in the process as it was practiced in Bridgeport?

AB: So in Connecticut, the normal process for someone voting absentee is they fill out an application for an absentee ballot and send it to the local town clerk's office. That application is processed in a ballot and an absentee ballot is mailed out to that voter at their home address. From there, the voters themselves with no other help from political activists are supposed to fill out the ballot and mail it back into the clerk's office. They can also use those drop boxes to deposit them in person or they can walk into the clerk's office and hand it directly to local election officials.

What we found is that the absentee application process, the process that happens before ballots go out in Bridgeport, it is a door-to-door fight to sign people up for absentee ballots. There were over 300 instances in which a voter had more than one application signed in their name. In some instances, there were voters who had three applications for an absentee ballot submitted to local election officials. It just shows how relentless the push for absentee votes was in the city. And you know, we saw, especially in low-income housing units and elderly apartment complexes, there were dueling campaigns that essentially were targeting the same people. These people were being visited by two or three people ahead of the primary election to sign them up for an absentee vote. And that is all legal in Connecticut. What is not legal is assisting someone and filling out a ballot or taking their ballot and delivering the City Hall once it is complete. Political activists should not be involved in that process. And that's what the surveillance videos allegedly show.

WSHU: In those surveillance videos, the most prominent person was Wanda Geter-Pataky. Who is she and what did your analysis find as far as what role she played in the whole process?

AB: Wanda Geter-Pataky is the vice chairwoman of the Bridgeport Democratic Party. She is also a city employee who worked essentially as a receptionist at the front desk in City Hall. She was the first person to be shown on surveillance video essentially placing ballots into a drop box or allegedly doing so. What our analysis found is that she was the most prominent person involved in the absentee ballot push at the election. Wanda signed 537 of the applications for an absentee ballot. The signature at the bottom means that she essentially assisted the voters in filling out that form. So it just shows for the first time, really, the scope of how many voters she was personally in contact with ahead of the election. She met them face-to-face, she helped them fill out these applications.

WSHU: For 537 voters?

AB: At least. There are other forms that show similarities of how she filled out her forms. But her signature is definitely on 537 applications. And so she was the most prominent example of this small army of people who went door-to-door getting people to sign up for an absentee ballot ahead of the election. So while she's drawn a lot of the attention because her video was the first to emerge from City Hall, it is fair to say that she was the most prominent player in the push for absentee votes.

WSHU: Who are the principles? Joe Ganim, the incumbent mayor, and his opponent, John Gomes, what are they saying about this, considering that they're going up against each other again soon? The judge has ordered a new primary for January 23. Is this still the process? Are we still going through the same process of harvesting absentee ballots?

AB: You would think that no one would be, after all of this, after the court cases, after the testimony in court, after the video surveillance. You would think that nobody would be illegally assisting someone in filling out a ballot or in taking their vote. The process for signing people up, however, is largely going to stay the same. It's legal for operatives to help people sign up for a ballot, not to assist them in actually completing it. The one major change that we will see in Bridgeport ahead of this election in January is the timeframe that applications for absentee ballots become available in Bridgeport. The judge in that case has restricted it to a roughly three-week period, which is a huge difference from the primary that took place in September, when our analysis showed that Wanda Geter-Pataky and other people essentially started signing people up for absentee ballots for the September primary, as early as June. So they had a three to four month window in which they were circulating these applications. That's going to have to happen this January election within three weeks.

WSHU: Also, your analysis found that not all applications were immediately submitted, they held onto these ballots, and submitted them gradually. Could you just tell us a little bit about that?

JLM: Yeah. So when we digitized these applications, where the applicant signs the form at the bottom, they also had to sign the date. So that's when they signed the application. Now, there's also a stamp on these forms, and that's the clerk stamp. And it also has a date. So when they received it. So we calculated the difference between that signature date and the clerk stamps date to find out how much time each application was taking to be submitted to the clerk's office. And we grouped them by whoever assisted in that application. So for example, for some of these folks, we saw that their applications, the median number of days from that signature date to the clerk receipt date was over a month sometimes, and we chose the median, just because we don't want to skew any numbers that have an extreme number of days. So we thought the median statistic was a good value portrayed to readers.

WSHU: Okay, and Andrew, I was with you on election night at Ganim’s campaign headquarters. And we were together when Ganim came on stage and said it's not over until the absentee ballots are counted, and it will take a while to count the absentee ballots. So it seemed as if there was already an acknowledgement from the campaign that this was going to be decided by the absentee ballot count. The mechanism seems to have been in place to make sure that the difference would be made by the absentee ballot count.

AB: It seems, I think, that the Ganim campaign at that time, and you and I were both there, there were multiple people who essentially said, 'Don't worry about the in-person vote count or how many votes we're down, we're confident right now.' And Ganim stood there on that stage and said we're confident. Again, even if you set aside the surveillance videos of people dropping absentee ballots into the drop boxes, there was a reason for that. There were multiple people at that party around Ganim who had spent three to four months driving or assisting voters to these absentee votes, there was a huge amount of focus placed on absentee votes. So they had a pretty good recognition of how many votes they might be able to rely on and that provided confidence, right?

If you're down by a couple hundred votes and you went door knocking and people said they supported you and then you helped them fill out an application for an absentee ballot, it's a pretty good estimation that you may have enough to overcome the in-person vote. And that is what Bridgeport is now, the primary is not the first election where absentee votes swung, essentially, or decided, the victor. And that's because again, these campaigns placed a huge amount of effort and a huge amount of focus on making sure that a large amount of voters voted absentee.

WSHU: And 22%, almost 23% of the votes counted in the primary were absentees.

AB: Correct.

WSHU: What is that compared to the rest of the state?

JLM: Compared to the rest of the state for those 2023 primaries, the town with the largest share after Bridgeport is Hartford at 15%. And then it just goes down. So Bridgeport had far more.

WSHU: Okay, well, we're looking forward to another primary in January. And I'm sure you guys will be digging into the numbers and looking at how this plays out. But it's really fascinating that you did this study and really appreciate that you were able to join us.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.