Brian Smith has shown up to vote on Election Day in Bridgeport for most of his adult life. The mental health worker scratched his head before casting his ballot in Tuesday’s municipal election, however.
“Bridgeport has so much corruption as far as politics,” said Smith, who was hesitant to provide his exact age but divulged that he was in his 50s. “After a while, it’s like, why even vote? It’s like nothing’s going to get done.”
Still, “I think it matters,” added Smith, who overcame his reluctance and voted at Dunbar School in the city’s East End neighborhood.
But his vote didn’t necessarily determine the new mayor of Bridgeport. For that to happen, Smith will have to cast a ballot at least one more time.
Last week, a state judge ordered a new Democratic mayoral primary election in Bridgeport weeks after candidate John Gomes’ campaign released a video allegedly showing a supporter of Mayor Joe Ganim illegally delivering absentee ballots to a drop box outside the city’s government center.
Ganim, a Democrat, narrowly won the general election Tuesday night over Gomes, also a Democrat, who ran on the Independent Party line. Ganim’s victory all but guaranteed a do-over for the primary — and possibly the general election, if Gomes wins the rematch.
The recent string of events has unsettled longtime residents of the state’s most populous city. And voting rights advocates and election experts worry that it could restrict voting access for not just Bridgeport residents — the overwhelming majority of whom are Black or Hispanic — but electors across the state.
“It’s exactly what we don’t want,” said Patricia Rossi, co-president for the League of Women Voters of Connecticut. “I think if people don’t have confidence in the system, it does disincline them from voting if they don’t think their vote is going to count again.”
Some state Republican leaders are pushing the legislature’s Democratic majority for swift action in response to the claims of election fraud in Bridgeport, including suspending the use of absentee ballot drop boxes until the State Elections Enforcement Commission completes its investigation.
But national voting rights experts are cautioning against using isolated incidents of fraud as a means to restrict access to absentee voting methods locally.
“They’re a proven, really valuable voting method for many voters, and specifically for voters of color,” said Isabelle Muhlbauer of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a New York-based civil rights organization.
Absentee voting is a widely used practice that allows people to submit a ballot, either through mail or via a drop box, without having to physically show up to the polls on Election Day.
Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., allow voters to utilize the convenience measure without an excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Connecticut has added to the list of eligible excuses for absentee voting in recent elections due to the coronavirus.
And with only a year until Connecticut residents decide whether the state can amend the Constitution to permanently allow no-excuse absentee voting, there’s an expectation among voters that in the next legislative session, officials will adequately address the recent events in Bridgeport.
“Buying into this talking point, that because of an isolated incident, this entire system of voting is now unsafe, could have a real impact for voters in the city of Bridgeport,” Muhlbauer said.
But lawmakers will likely encounter the challenge of having to do so without legitimizing misinformation and depriving people of access to the franchise. Overwhelming evidence has shown that voting fraud in Connecticut and throughout the U.S. is rare.
“I think it’s important, first of all, to let all the facts come out of the Bridgeport situation so that we’re taking whatever action we are based on a full picture of what happened there,” said Rep. Matt Blumenthal, co-chair of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, “but also make sure we’re taking into account the needs and concerns of communities across the state.
“It’s essential that people understand how the system works and that it’s transparent,” said Blumenthal, D-Stamford. “And when there is wrongdoing or allegations of wrongdoing, that it’s fully investigated and that anyone who’s engaged in misconduct faces adequate consequences.”
Gemeem Davis is the president of Bridgeport Generation Now Votes, a nonprofit organization focused on local voter education and turnout. Born and raised in Bridgeport, Davis said the city has a “systemic problem with ballot abuse and fraud” and that the alleged misconduct currently raising alarm has been an open secret among residents for years.
“We really can’t trust the results of our local elections because political operatives harvest absentee ballots,” Davis said.
Ballot harvesting occurs when third-party individuals, not voters themselves, submit absentee ballots to sites where the ballots are collected. Connecticut law holds that absentee ballots can be returned only by the applicant, their family members, police officers, local election officials or a person directly caring for someone who receives an absentee ballot because they are ill or have a physical disability.
Prior to the state court’s most recent ruling, a judge last year ordered a new Democratic primary for a state representative seat in Bridgeport due to absentee ballot irregularities.
This summer, the State Elections Enforcement Commission recommended criminal charges for three people associated with Ganim’s campaign for their alleged misuse of absentee ballots in the Democratic mayoral primary in 2019.
One of the people named in the SEEC investigation was Wanda Geter-Pataky, a city employee and vice chair of the Democratic Town Committee. She was also the person accused of ballot harvesting during this year’s election cycle.
Bridgeport Generation Now Votes wants to see political operatives removed from the absentee voting process and stiffer criminal penalties for people intentionally skirting the law.
But the organization warns against making it more difficult for people to cast their ballots.
“We absolutely see no-excuse absentee voting as part of the solution to the problem that we have. Restricting access to the ballot box is not going to help anyone,” Davis said. “When more people vote, it’s harder for people to manipulate the vote. When less people vote, it’s easier for those operatives to really make a difference with their shenanigans.”
Compared to official results in the 2019 municipal election, Bridgeport’s unofficial turnout in Tuesday’s mayoral election showed a 2% decrease — from roughly 22% to 20%, according to the secretary of the state’s office.
The latest unofficial results show that Ganim won the election by 179 votes; he won the absentee vote total by 429 votes, according to election night totals. The rematch between the incumbent and Gomes has yet to be scheduled.
Andrea Benjamin, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies race, politics, local elections and voting behavior, said it’s possible that with a re-do of the primary looming, voters in Bridgeport are experiencing fatigue. And that could affect turnout, which for local elections is typically low.
“I guess my question to the city is … what’s going to be the educational campaign that goes along with it so that voters know, ‘Hey, we have one more election. It’s not over yet. You haven’t elected a new mayor. We still have one more thing to do,’” Benjamin said.
Davis agrees, and her organization plans to continue knocking on doors, writing blog posts and spreading awareness through social media channels. But she knows her staff can’t do it alone.
“It’s not going to be our one organization that can get that stuff out. It is going to take lots of people to try and educate voters about what’s going on,” Davis said. “But it is difficult because it’s also very confusing.”
Mattie Pettway has resided in Bridgeport since 1962. She’s the niece of Bridgeport’s first African-American deputy fire chief, Earley Pettway.
Frustrated with the recent thread of events in the city, she said she still shows up to vote because of the struggles people like her grandparents endured fighting for ballot access during the civil rights movement.
She showed up to the polls on Tuesday despite her disappointment with how politicians in the city have acted in recent years.
“Whatever they tell you they’re going to do or not going to do, I don’t pay that any attention,” Pettway said.
She was also adamant that Tuesday was her last time voting this year.
Joycelyn Turner, a 14-year resident of Bridgeport who drives kids to and from school, was unaware of the election debacle in the city, but she plans to stay civically engaged because “I want to see Bridgeport do better.”
“I think everybody should be honest voters, but the ones that are not … that makes Bridgeport look bad,” Turner said. “I just want to see positive things happen. People that got the power to make a difference — I want to see them do good and help others do better.”
Smith, the mental health worker, also yearns for Bridgeport to live up to its potential. But in his eyes, “the same old people in office” are holding the city back. He feels like the mayoral race should be placed on hold until the investigation into the alleged fraud concludes.
“It’s been going on for years, and nothing’s changed. You look at the city; there’s nothing changed,” said Smith, who’s unsure about voting again in the primary rematch. “It’s just after a while you get frustrated. Why am I voting?”