A protestor sets up signs outside the Bridgeport Government Center following the city's 2023 Democratic mayoral primary. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

Officials in Bridgeport began issuing absentee ballots on Friday in preparation for the upcoming general election, while the state searches for someone to monitor the city’s voting processes and a judge prepares to decide whether to toss out the results of the city’s recent Democratic primary.

Under Connecticut’s election laws, the clerks in Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities were authorized to start mailing out ballots on Friday to people who applied to vote via absentee for the election on Nov. 7.

The issuance of the absentee ballots, however, comes at a rather chaotic and uncertain time in Bridgeport, where the recent Democratic primary between Mayor Joe Ganim and his challenger John Gomes resulted in claims of fraud and allegations of widespread ballot harvesting.

At the center of it all is a leaked video that allegedly depicts a Ganim supporter delivering handfuls of documents to a drop box outside the city government center — an action that may violate the state’s election laws which restrict who can handle and deliver other voters’ ballots.

That video, which was allegedly captured by city surveillance cameras, was released by the Gomes campaign several days after the primary, and it prompted immediate action in court, the state legislature and the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which is responsible for policing the state’s election laws.

Gomes filed the lawsuit seeking to overturn the primary, which he lost by roughly 251 votes. State lawmakers voted during a special session to reassign money so the secretary of the state could hire an election monitor to oversee future Bridgeport elections. And the SEEC opened investigations into numerous complaints about the absentee ballot process in Bridgeport.

But none of those steps halted the impending general election in November. That means Bridgeport voters will be casting votes via absentee even before the first evidentiary hearing in Gomes’ pending lawsuit, which is scheduled for next week.

The new ballots that began going out to Bridgeport voters on Friday include four different candidates for mayor, and the choices guarantee a rematch between Ganim and Gomes even if the primary results are upheld by the court.

Ganim, as the winner of the primary, is the Democratic nominee. Gomes secured a spot on the Independent Party line. David Herz is the Republican candidate. And Lamond Daniels fought his way onto the ballot as a petitioning candidate.

To try to allay the public’s concerns about the absentee balloting process in Bridgeport and the integrity of the city’s elections, both the Ganim and Gomes campaigns have supported the appointment of a new monitor for the upcoming election.

The state is offering up to $150,000 per year to the person who would fill that role until the end of 2024.

Officials with the Secretary of the State’s office told the Connecticut Mirror this week, however, that they were still marketing that position and searching for qualified candidates.

Both the Ganim and Gomes campaign continued to call for a monitor to be put in place this week, and they also agreed that the monitor should oversee the absentee process in elderly and affordable housing units where numerous people have requested ballots in the same building.

Christine Bartlett-Josie, Gomes’ campaign manager, said she would like to see a plan for how the absentee ballot process will be safeguarded, and she said the Gomes campaign would like that plan to be released to the general public.

The job description that was posted by the secretary of the state says the first task of the new monitor will be to “detect and prevent irregularity and impropriety” in the upcoming general election, including in the absentee ballot process.

But some people are concerned about how well the eventual hire will be able to perform that job if they are not in place prior to hundreds of absentee ballots being mailed to voters throughout the city.

Callie Gale Heilmann, president of Bridgeport Generation Now, a group that has advocated for the state election monitor in the city, said it was frustrating that the legislature didn’t get the state funding sorted out for the position until the special session last month.

Heilmann, whose group helped to challenge the Bridgeport’s Democratic primary results in 2019 in the close election between Ganim and state Sen. Marilyn Moore, pointed out that many campaigns in Bridgeport help to sign people up for absentee ballots well in advance of when the ballots are actually issued.

That means that hundreds of absentee ballots are often distributed via mail the first day the clerk authorizes their release. In the recent primary, more than a thousand absentee ballots were issued in Bridgeport during the first day they were available, according to election data.

Officials with the Bridgeport town clerk’s office said Friday that they processed and mailed out roughly 166 ballots for the upcoming general election by the early afternoon.

Many of the complaints that have been filed in recent years over Bridgeport elections involve the absentee ballot process in the city.

Candidates and campaign workers during several recent Bridgeport elections have been accused of helping people to fill out their ballots, which is illegal under state law. And they’ve similarly been accused of taking possession of other people’s absentee ballots once they are filled out, which is also a violation of state law unless you are the voter’s family member or caregiver.

Gomes has said that anyone committing such ballot fraud should be investigated and prosecuted. And Ganim issued a statement this week stating that his campaign had recently sought guidance on the rules surrounding absentee ballots and they distributed that information to the campaign’s volunteers and staff.

Heilmann said it’s not impossible that an election monitor could uncover ballot irregularities or potential fraud after it occurs using the records that are required for each election. But she said it certainly makes the job more difficult to start in the role while ballots are already being cast.

“Obviously, these things can be uncovered after the fact but it’s after the fact and it’s already happened,” Heilmann said. “The point of an election monitor is to restore trust in our local elections, and the only way to restore trust in our local elections is to be monitoring elections from the minute they begin.”

Andrew joined CT Mirror as an investigative reporter in July 2021. Prior to moving to Connecticut, Andrew was a reporter at newspapers in North Dakota, West Virginia and most recently South Carolina. He’s covered business, utilities, environmental issues, the opioid crisis, local government and two state legislatures. Do you have a story tip? Reach Andrew at 843-592-9958