Long after it’s over, Bridgeport vote gets a second look

BRIDGEPORT–Almost a month past Election Day, long after Tom Foley conceded and Gov.-elect Dan Malloy began assembling his administration, volunteers gathered at long plastic tables here Monday to figure out how, exactly, the city voted.

They hunched over piles of ballots, scrutinizing them one-by-one, trying to unravel an electoral mess that kept Connecticut in suspense for days after voting ended.

“The counting will just keep going until we finish,” said Luther Weeks, executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Election Audit Coalition, the group overseeing the process.

“This recount should help whomever’s interested in election integrity,” Weeks said. “And at the least, we’ll have an accurate count.”

Bridgeport ran into problems early on Election Day when precincts began running out of the ballot sheets printed for use with optical scanning devices. It turned out the city’s registrars of voters had ordered 21,000 ballots for 69,000 registered voters.

Thousands of ballot photocopies were made and dispatched to polling places in police cruisers, but an unknown number of voters left without casting ballots. A federal judge ordered the affected polling places to stay open for two additional hours.

Then the photocopies had to be hand-counted, a process that lasted until near dawn on the Friday after the election and was marked by claims of irregularities, including the supposed discovery of a mysterious bag of ballots.

The city’s tally ultimately was accepted by Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz’s office. But after city officials refused a suggestion by Bysiewicz that votes in the affected precincts be audited, the Connecticut Post moved to check the count on its own.

“We sent in a FOIA request,” said Tom Braden, editor of the Post, referring to a request for government records, “and then we realized that we’re not really in the business of counting votes.”

The Post requested access to all ballots cast during the November 2nd election. Then they brought the coalition on board to run things

Both of the Bridgeport registrars were present Monday, their services provided by the city.

“For the recount they’re involved in sorting out the chain of custody of the ballots and, really, in helping find some of the ballots,” said Weeks. “City officials have been very cooperative.”

Sandi Ayala, the Democratic registrar, held court at one of those plastic tables in the large room, surrounded by volunteers, Post journalists and coalition members. Observers milled about, along with attorneys from the Connecticut Republican Party.

“They’re interested in the proceedings,” said Baden.

During the first hours of the count, progress was slow.

“A little bit of today is just getting our bearings,” said Cheryl Dunson, president of the Connecticut League of Women Voters, a Coalition member. “We’re figuring out the process.”

The process, according to Weeks, involves checking chains of custody, poring over “questionable” ballots, hand-counting photocopied ballots and tallying vote totals for each polling place. The Post has a detailed description of the process here.

“If the bubble was filled in at least 25% it was probably picked up by the machine,” said Dunson, huddled with volunteers at one table. She was referring to one of those “questionable” ballots, where it’s not clear whether the machine registered the vote or not.

She called Weeks over to decide.

“We’ll do these together,” said Weeks, gathering the pile of ballots. “Questionable pile,” he said, putting one ballot aside. “That one’s fine. That’s fine. Questionable.”

Counting will go on through at least the end of the week, with 30 to 40 volunteers.The Post will blog regular updates of the recount. And though it won’t change the outcome of the election, the process should show how accurate the final, and official, Bridgeport tally was.

But not everyone is on board with the exercise.

State Sen. Ed Gomes, watching the proceedings from behind the yellow police tape roping off the counting area, discussed the merits of the exercise with other bystanders.

“They’re trying to create the impression that there was cheating and fraud in Bridgeport,” he told a couple of municipal workers who’d stopped by for a look. “But there was no cheating.”

Then Gomes, who represents Stratford and Bridgeport, grabbed Weeks for a bit of questioning.

“I just don’t know what the point of this is. I think it’s a waste of time,” he said. “They’re going looking for problems, but the only thing wrong I saw was that enough ballots weren’t ordered.”

Weeks said he didn’t disagree. “But this is about answering questions raised by the public.”

“And maybe this will show that Bridgeport was just fine.”