A Bridgeport resident brought messages to the city Government Center on Friday, Sept. 22. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

A partisan fight Tuesday over how to respond to the unfolding Bridgeport absentee-ballot investigation enlivened a special session whose major issue once was expected to be a bill to advance the date of Connecticut’s presidential primary.

Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for a bill that authorizes and funds an elections monitor for Bridgeport, but the Democratic majorities rebuffed Republican efforts to immediately make permanent changes to elections law, including mandatory prison time for election fraud.

Passage came on votes of 136-2 in the House and 35-0 in the Senate. Among other things, the measure moves the 2024 presidential primary from the last Tuesday in April to the first. The elections monitor had been previously authorized in the budget, but an error necessitated a new vote.

The debates in the House and Senate were a prelude to what House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said will be a deeper exploration during the regular 2024 session into ways to address election fraud and ballot security, issues that Donald J. Trump has made central to contemporary American politics.

Republicans suggested the voter fraud was broader in Connecticut than elections enforcement officials say is the case, but they also took care to keep a certain distance from Trump and his insistence that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

“I’m not going to go so far as to say elections have been stolen, or there’s tens of thousands of votes at stake here,” said Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott. “But the truth is, none of us really know. None of us really know.”

Inspiration for the heated debate came from Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold with the last of old-school political machines and a greater reliance on absentee ballots than any other city in the state.

John Gomes, the Democratic challenger to Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, released video footage that shows a woman making deposits into absentee ballot boxes. John Gomes campaign

Security video in Bridgeport captured a woman repeatedly and furtively depositing absentee ballots into a drop box outside the city’s Government Center prior to the Democratic mayoral primary won by Mayor Joseph P. Ganim. For the second time in consecutive primaries, Ganim’s margin of victory came in absentee voting.

A Superior Court judge is currently weighing a request for a new election, and police and the State Elections Enforcement Commission are investigating whether the woman violated the state’s strict laws on how absentee ballots are obtained, filled out and returned.

Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison, but jail time is rare.

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim appeared in court in June seeking reinstatement to the Connecticut bar. He was suspended following his 2003 conviction on corruption charges. A panel of superior court judges denied Ganim’s application for reinstatement. Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public

In a Stamford case involving the former Democratic chair, a judge recently rejected a prosecutor’s call for a five-year sentence on a 14-count conviction stemming from fraudulently obtained absentee ballots, a crime caught at the polls on Election Day. The defendant got no prison time.

“I think that’s where you change the penalties and make it that they can’t give a suspended sentence, that get caught doing the crime, you’re going to do the time,” said Sen. Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford.

In the House, Ritter ruled during debate that any changes to penalties were beyond the scope of the one-day special session, and he joined other Democrats in opposing an immediate ban on absentee-ballot drop boxes.

“Do you take a wrecking ball approach and ban everything for everybody else?” Ritter said prior to the debate. “Or do you try to use more of a scalpel approach in dealing with a situation that we all agree is serious?”

House Republicans did not challenge Ritter’s ruling. 

Bridgeport mayoral candidate John Gomes speaks to the press on Monday, Sept. 25. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

In the Senate, the proposal for a mandatory prison sentence was allowed to come to a vote, then rejected on a 22-12 party-line vote.

“What we saw on the video is what the problem is,” Kelly said. “It’s the harvesting of ballots, the pressure that’s put on people. And that needs to be curtailed so that we can reaffirm the trust and confidence that people have in the system. That’s our job as elected officials.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said the Republicans were grandstanding by proposing quick changes in criminal and election law in the earliest weeks of the investigation in Bridgeport.

“I think what we have seen is, is a great deal of excessive rhetoric from the minority party today on that issue, jumping ahead of whatever an investigation might reveal,” Looney said. “And I can certainly say that the majority party is every bit as concerned about election integrity.”

Democrats also rejected Republican proposals to ban drop boxes.

Republicans insisted the drop boxes made fraud easier, though if the woman in Bridgeport had fraudulently obtained absentee ballots, she still could have deposited them in the U.S. mail.

One irony of the call for their abolition is that all four drop boxes employed in Bridgeport were covered by security cameras. If the challenged ballots were mailed, there would be no video evidence. 

Inherent in most debates over combating fraud is the tension between security that protects ballot integrity and inconveniences that limit ballot access.

“We’re always balancing those rights of individuals versus the reality, which is some people will cross the line, some people may have violated state statute, and they may be punished for that,” Ritter said.

But he said that the drop boxes are the best way for voters to ensure that their absentee ballots have made it to town hall, and a statewide ban — or even one focused on Bridgeport — would be overkill, he said. A ballot mailed the weekend before the election might not arrive by Election Day.

“I don’t know what you get from banning a ballot box in Pomfret, Conn. I don’t know what that accomplishes,” Ritter said. “All you’re doing is disenfranchising those individuals.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.