This story is part of CT Mirror Explains, an ongoing effort to distill our wide-ranging reporting into a "what you need to know" format and provide practical information to our readers.
After videos of apparent ballot stuffing in Bridgeport, the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission is once again taking center stage as it ramps up its investigation into the primary contest between seven-term incumbent Joe Ganim and challenger John Gomes.
Founded in the 1970s, the Commission is responsible for upholding election and campaign finance law in the state.
Here’s what you should know about it.
What is the State Elections Enforcement Commission?
Connecticut created the SEEC to act as a “watchdog” for financial improprieties or election-related misconduct in the state after the Watergate scandal. At first, it was empowered to investigate any potential violations of the state’s election laws and provide reports on potential election reforms.
After Gov. John Rowland resigned from office in 2004 due to a corruption scandal and the state was dubbed “Corrupticut,” the state legislature passed campaign finance reform. This reform created the Citizens’ Election Program, a public financing option for candidates, and also moved the filing of campaign finance forms from the Secretary of the State’s office to the SEEC.
The SEEC has since built a website for people to access these filings.
The Commission also oversees the logistics of the Citizens’ Election Program through which candidates can receive public funding for their campaigns.
What does the SEEC do when it receives an election complaint?
The enforcement unit of the SEEC can receive complaints in two ways: an affidavit alleging impropriety or a referral from a law enforcement agency, town clerk or the Secretary of the State’s office.
When the SEEC receives a complaint from a citizen, it first makes a judgment on the complaint. If it alleges a violation of the state’s election law, the Commission opens an investigation. The Commission has one year to decide whether a complaint rises to a level of investigation. If it does not make a decision, the complaint is automatically dismissed.
When a law enforcement agency, town clerk or the Secretary of the State’s office refers a matter to the Commission, the Commission will investigate the claim, but there is no one-year time limit on opening an investigation.
Once the Commission votes to open an investigation, it has broad powers to subpoena documents such as ballots or voter rolls as well as compel the testimony of witnesses.
What enforcement powers does the SEEC have?
If someone has broken election or campaign finance rules, the SEEC can issue a fine of up to $2,000 per violation. The Commission can also issue cease and desist orders, and it can remove voters from the voter rolls.
Finally, if a registrar of voters is responsible for misconduct, the SEEC can also remove them from their position. The Commission does not have criminal enforcement powers, so if a person breaks election or campaign finance law, the SEEC can recommend charges to the office of the Chief State’s Attorney.
What is the SEEC doing in Bridgeport right now?
The Commission has accepted 15 complaints about the September Democratic primary in Bridgeport. It has since seized all absentee ballots and applications and is worked to preserve all DNA evidence on the ballots and forms.
The SEEC has also turned over those ballots and applications to lawyers involved in Gomes’ lawsuit seeking to overturn the election.
The SEEC has investigated numerous complaints of absentee ballot fraud and abuse in Bridgeport in recent years, and the commission referred three people associated with Ganim’s 2019 mayoral campaign for potential criminal charges in June.
The difference between 2019 and 2023: video evidence. The Gomes campaign released footage showing a woman stuffing an absentee ballot box and claimed she is Ganim supporter Wanda Geter-Pataky, one of the three people the SEEC recommended charges against in June.
Bridgeport Judge William Clark presided over a civil case filed by Gomes to invalidate the primary during mid-October. The trial closed on Oct. 19. Attorneys submitted written arguments Oct. 25 and replies two days later.
Clark is expected to issue a decision before the general election on Nov. 7.