Republicans and Democrats are competing in very different primaries Tuesday for secretary of the state, a relatively non-partisan outpost of state government before Donald J. Trump tried to convince Americans their elections were rigged.
“All of a sudden, everything’s being questioned,” said Denise Merrill, the Democrat who recently stepped down after a dozen years. “I think that has totally changed the importance of this office, because I think your primary job now as secretary of the state is explaining the election process to the public.”
To varying degrees, the Republicans, Dominic A. Rapini of Branford and state Rep. Terrie Wood of Darien, are leaning in to Trump’s issues of fraud and public confidence, while disagreeing with Trump’s claim that Joe Biden stole the White House.
In the Democratic contest, Rep. Stephanie Thomas of Norwalk and Maritza Bond of New Haven are trying to excite the base over the opportunity to elect the first woman of color to the statewide office: Thomas as a Black woman; Bond as a Latina. Thomas is the party-endorsed candidate, while Bond has a significant labor endorsement.
Bond, the director of health in New Haven, has tried to capitalize on an endorsement from the state AFL-CIO with an ad attacking Thomas for missing a vote on a labor contract and voting with 16 other Democrats last year against bill requiring hotels, food service contractors and others to recall workers laid off during COVID-19 in order of seniority.
Thomas and Bond are unified, however, in questioning the Republican emphasis on election fraud, signaling a divide in the general election regardless of who wins on Tuesday.
The party-endorsed candidate in the Republican primary is Rapini, an Apple marketing executive who has made voter fraud and election integrity his calling, formerly chairing a non-profit, Fight Voter Fraud Inc.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission delivered an extraordinary rebuke of the group last year, saying the dozens of complaints it filed were unsubstantiated, betrayed little knowledge of election law and wasted the agency’s time. The rebuke was first reported by Hearst Connecticut.
In an interview, Rapini distanced himself from Fight Voter Fraud, saying he was directly involved in three complaints, most dealing with inaccuracies in voter lists that could create an opportunity for fraud, even if corroborated allegations of double voting are extremely rare.
“I did a lot of data work. And when I realized when you put that stuff in front of the SEEC, they’re not the right vehicle for change on this, right?” he said. “They’re very binary — it’s either fraud, or it’s not fraud. The stuff I put in front of them was not about fraud, it’s about your problems with our data.”
Wood makes no allegations of systemic fraud, but she has embraced two Republican talking points on elections: Connecticut should require a photo ID to vote, and the state’s mass mailing of absentee ballot applications as a COVID-19 precaution was wrongheaded.
Addressing the Republican Town Committee in Montville on Thursday night, both highlighted election integrity. Wood complained that Democrats say Connecticut already has a requirement for identification to vote.
“No, we don’t,” Wood said. “It’s requested. It’s not required. And there’s a fundamental difference. If you don’t have one, you go to the moderator and sign a piece of paper that says you are who you say you are, and there’s no follow up. We need to tighten that.”
Wood called the mass mailing of absentee ballot applications “shocking,” as they arrived at many outdated addresses. Some voters were alarmed, mistaking the arrival of unsolicited applications with actual ballots.
Rapini said tighter election standards should be of interest to all groups, including those who are advocating for a strong role for parents in public education.
“And if you guys care about parental rights, the way you’re going to get sustainable change is going to be at the ballot box,” Rapini said. “And for that to happen, we have to make sure that our devices are secure and strong and trustworthy.”
Both favor requiring a photo ID, noting one is required for many activities, including boarding a commercial aircraft.
A study in 2014 by the non-partisan Government Accounting Office concluded after a study in two states that requiring photo IDs depressed turnout among African-Americans and younger voters by between 1.9% and 3.2% in several elections.
Thomas said no one has made a credible case that impersonating voters at the polls actually happens in Connecticut.
“I think the requirement for photo ID is a solution in search of a problem,” Thomas said.
But the agreement on some issues belies the increasingly personal animus between the Democrats, as Bond tries to negate Thomas’ advantage as the party-endorsed candidate with attack ads.
Bond’s campaign has argued that missed votes by Thomas betray either an animus or disinterest in issues of importance to Democrats. Her ad ends with a brutal tag line: “Stephanie Thomas simply doesn’t care enough to show up for us.”
“The commercial speaks for itself. It is basically an example of her trajectory as a freshman state rep and where she was heading in her career path, early in her career path,” Bond said. “She’s barely been in office and already was taking positions that really do not align with our democratic values.”
In the part-time legislature, Thomas said, nearly everyone has outside employment. She said she missed the contract vote because she had a commitment to one of the non-profit clients in her consulting business.
“To make it an issue as if I have some anti-labor sentiment, it’s just silly,” Thomas said. “And for a role that is based on integrity, trust and stopping the spread of misinformation, I find myself very disappointed that she would take that route, but to me it shows a certain unfitness for the job.”
Rapini and Wood are not factors in each other’s ads.
“I’ve been at Apple for a long time for almost three decades,” Rapini said. “And I never talked about the competitive product.”
Brock L. Weber, a third candidate who qualified for the Republican primary, dropped out of the race shortly before the elections commission denied his application for public financing and opened an investigation into “potential fraudulent contributions and certification cards submitted on behalf of Weber.”
Qualifying for public financing under the voluntary Citizens’ Election Program requires demonstrating support by raising small-dollar donations, most of whom must be certified as Connecticut residents. Weber did not return calls for comment.
All four candidates on the ballots Tuesday are participating in the program, pledging to live by its spending limits in return for public grants of $484,125. The sum is insufficient for more than a token presence on television, making targeted digital advertising a staple in down-ballot primaries.