Attorney William Bloss and his client, Democratic Mayoral challenger John Gomes, speak to the press outside Superior Court in Bridgeport on Friday, Oct. 13. Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror

A Superior Court judge has ordered a new Democratic mayoral primary in Bridgeport, ruling that challenger John Gomes’ claims of unprecedented absentee ballot fraud merit a new election.

The judge ordered the two sides and city election officials to meet within the next 10 days to begin discussions about when to hold a primary and to have an answer by Nov. 17.

Gomes, who previously worked in Ganim’s administration as a chief administrative officer, called the court’s decision “a victory for the people of Bridgeport.”

“Our campaign always believed that the integrity of our democratic process must be upheld and Superior Court Judge William Clark agreed,” Gomes said in a prepared statement.

But the judge’s decision on Wednesday to hold the new primary may not be the end of the legal drama.

Attorneys representing the city said they may file an emergency appeal to the state Supreme Court, raising the possibility that the state’s highest court will be hearing legal arguments as voters go to the polls Tuesday.

Clark’s ruling does not impact actual voting on Tuesday, as the judge has no authority to halt an election. 

Gomes is challenging incumbent Mayor Joe Ganim as a third-party candidate.

In his statement Ganim focused more on the upcoming election than the ruling.

“Certainly, today’s decision by the court is a substantial one in the court case, and I’ll wait to be apprised by the lawyers as to whether or not they want to take an appeal,” Ganim said.

“But what hasn’t changed, and what’s really important, is this November 7th, Tuesday, in the city of Bridgeport is Election Day. It’s a general election for mayor and all the municipal offices,” Ganim said, adding.

“I’m the endorsed Democratic candidate on the top line, and I’m asking everyone to come out and vote in this election. Let’s send a powerful message that we want to keep the progress going in Bridgeport.”

The result of next week’s general election will determine what happens next.

If Gomes wins, his attorney William Bloss said, he would withdraw the complaint, and Gomes would be mayor. If Ganim wins Tuesday’s election, another Democratic primary will take place, according to Clark’s order.

If Ganim wins the new primary, he would be reelected mayor, and another general election wouldn’t be necessary, because the relief Gomes was seeking was a new primary election. If Gomes wins the new primary, however, a new city-wide election would have to be held to determine the winner of the mayoral contest, Bloss said.

Gomes and Ganim are going up against Republican David Herz and petitioning candidate Lamond Daniels on Tuesday.

All other city races will be decided on Election Day and are not subject to a new primary.

Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas issued a statement late Wednesday saying she was “pleased” with the judge’s ruling.

“We’re pleased Judge Clark is protecting the integrity of our elections by ordering a new Primary Election,” Thomas said. “Per the Court’s decision, the Secretary of the State’s office will confer with the mayoral candidate campaigns, elections officials in Bridgeport, and other officials to determine the date of the new Primary within 10 days.”

Thomas said her office will work with the interim election monitor to determine next steps, and we will issue a new election calendar, which will be posted to once the new primary date has been set.

“The Court’s finding that there was a ‘significant mishandling of ballots’ should be of great concern to all,” Thomas said. “Our office will continue to advocate for policies such as drop box surveillance, a Connecticut Election Court, and investment in voter education – all of which will strengthen our election system.”

Still, the city could appeal Clark’s decision directly to the state Supreme Court under what is known as “an expedited public interest appeal,” which would allow the court to hear the appeal immediately, perhaps even before Election Day, which is what occurred during the last Bridgeport mayoral election in 2019 when Ganim defeated Marilyn Moore by about 300 votes in the primary.

Ganim easily won re-election in 2019, after Moore ran as only a write-in candidate. Three weeks after the election, the Supreme Court sided with a previous decision not to order a new primary ending the lawsuit.

Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim speaks during a hearing in Bridgeport Superior Court, in Bridgeport, Conn. Oct. 17, 2023. Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media/pool photo

Ganim defeated Gomes by 251 votes in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, but Gomes filed the lawsuit seeking to overturn those results after a video surfaced of Democratic Town Committee vice chairwoman Wanda Geter-Pataky apparently placing multiple absentee ballots into one of the four absentee ballot drop boxes in the city.

“The videos are shocking to the court and should be shocking to all of the parties,” Clark wrote.

Clark said the numerous videos of Geter-Pataky delivering ballots to the drop boxes and assisting other people in dropping off ballots highly suggested that she was breaking the state’s election laws.

“These instances do not appear to the court to be random,” Clark wrote in his opinion.

“The issue in this case is not the applications or even the push to deliver absentee votes. The issue is whether that advocacy crossed a line of the established laws. Specifically, whether individuals who were not the voter and were not authorized under statute handled ballots,” Clark said. “Based on the video and the numbers of absentee votes submitted through the drop box method in Districts 136 and 139 in particular, this court finds that such violations did occur.”

Geter-Pataky was one of eight witnesses who testified during the five-day hearing. She asserted her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions from Bloss 71 times during her testimony.

City Council challenger Eneida Martinez also asserted her Fifth Amendment right when Bloss showed her videos that he claimed were of her dropping multiple ballots into a drop box.

Geter-Pataky and Martinez’s decisions to assert their 5th Amendment rights on the witness stand ultimately assisted Gomes in his lawsuit, the judge wrote.

Clark said he made an “adverse inference” based on their refusal to testify. That essentially means the judge could interpret their silence to mean that they did inappropriately handle other voters’ ballots. 

“The counting of any ballots that were mishandled in violation of state law and placed into drop boxes by Ms. Geter-Pataky, Ms. Martinez, and others, was a mistake in the vote count,” Clark wrote. “Given the volume of votes at issue, the miscounting of those statutorily invalid votes leaves this court unable to determine the result of the primary.”

Geter-Pataky and Martinez were followed to the witness stand by Ganim, who testified that he has never talked with Geter-Pataky about distributing absentee ballots for his campaign. Ganim repeatedly referred to her as a “volunteer” and testified his paid campaign staff is trained to never touch someone else’s ballot.

Bloss showed multiple clips of Geter-Pataky and others apparently placing absentee ballots into drop boxes.  

“Nearly everyone who looked at the videos was shocked as Judge Clark,” Bloss said. “An election won by breaking the rules isn’t a fair election.”

Bloss based his argument that a new primary is needed on numbers — arguing that as many as 1,253 were submitted through drop boxes, while 2,100 hours of surveillance videos of the city’s four drop boxes show only about 420 people placing ballots in them.

“The number of ballots at issue, when considering the corroborating evidence of the video, documentary evidence and calculations which show a large number of votes in drop boxes and a large percentage of absentee votes in districts connected to Ms. Geter-Pataky and Ms. Martinez, along with the negative inference to be drawn against their preferred candidate, Mr. Ganim, brings the reliability of the primary into serious doubt,” Clark wrote.

Dave does in-depth investigative reporting for CT Mirror. His work focuses on government accountability including financial oversight, abuse of power, corruption, safety monitoring, and compliance with law. Before joining CT Mirror Altimari spent 23 years at the Hartford Courant breaking some of the state’s biggest, most impactful investigative stories.

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