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Connecticut city's 'mishandled ballots' fuel election skeptics. Experts call problem local, limited

A judge's order for a new primary in Connecticut's largest city because of what he called mishandling of absentee ballots is fueling skepticism about the security of U.S. elections, as well as conspiracy theories involving the 2020 presidential election.

But election experts contend what happened in Bridgeport — people captured on surveillance video dropping stacks of ballots into outdoor collection boxes — is unique to Bridgeport, a working class city of more than 144,000 that has a long history of voting irregularities. At the very least, they said, it is pretty rare and shouldn't be seen as evidence of widespread problems.

“In Connecticut, this is a problem here and here alone,” longtime election law attorney Bill Bloss, who is representing the Democratic candidate who successfully challenged the outcome of the city's mayoral primary, said Thursday when asked about the case fueling misinformation about former President Donald Trump's 2020 defeat.

An Associated Press review of every potential case of voter fraud in the six battleground states disputed by Trump has found fewer than 475 — a number that would have made no difference in the 2020 presidential election. And legal challenges to the 2020 election were heard and roundly rejected by dozens of courts at both state and federal levels, including by judges whom Trump appointed.

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“Our case was based on evidence. Other cases maybe didn’t," Bloss said, adding “Proof matters.”

On Wednesday, Connecticut Judge William Clark tossed out the results of the Sept. 12 primary and ordered that a new one be held, citing what he referred to as “shocking” surveillance videos that appeared to show supporters of Mayor Joe Ganim dropping multiple pieces of paper into absentee ballot boxes.

Under Connecticut law, voters using a collection box must drop off their completed ballots themselves, or designate certain family members, police, local election officials or a caregiver to do it for them. Clark wrote in his decision that the volume of “mishandled ballots” left the court unable to determine the legitimate result of the primary.

Ganim, a Democrat who has repeatedly been reelected, despite having to have taken a break from public office while he served seven years in prison for corruption, has denied any knowledge of voting law violations.

So far, the Bridgeport scandal hasn't involved any allegations that people doctored ballots or created fake votes. Instead, they involve an activity known as “ballot harvesting,” where campaign workers or volunteers visit potential voters, persuade them to fill out absentee ballots, and then collect those ballots and put them in drop boxes or send them in via the mail.

That kind of collection effort is banned in Connecticut, but it is allowed in some other states. Some states put limits on how many absentee ballots any one person can deposit, or mail in, for others. Some say the practice is OK, as long as the voter designates in writing who will be dropping off their ballot. A few have no limits at all on the practice.

Former Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, said that in Bridgeport, people — especially older residents — have gotten accustomed to allowing others to deliver their absentee ballots, including before the state began allowing absentee drop boxes during the pandemic.

“We have been in court several times with the same issues, but it’s very difficult to interpret the evidence,” she said. “This time there is an actual video, which certainly helps the court decide whether there should be a new election.”

She worries that people will see Bridgeport's problem as proof of fraud happening elsewhere.

“There are so many conspiracy theories out there and yet for years we’ve had study after study tell us that it doesn’t happen,” Merrill said.

Entrepreneur Elon Musk stoked concern Thursday about possible election fraud beyond Bridgeport on his social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

“That this happened here is beyond reasonable doubt. The only question is how common it is,” he wrote.

The Connecticut judge ruled just six days before the general election, creating a perplexing scenario in which Bridgeport voters will decide the outcome of the mayoral election on Nov. 7, then potentially be asked to return to the polls at an undetermined date to vote in a new Democratic primary.

The Democrat who appeared to lose to Ganim in the mayoral primary, John Gomes, a former chief administrative officer for the city, will be on the ballot again in the general election as an unaffiliated candidate. On Thursday he urged people to go to the polls and vote for him in next week, saying his victory will make the primary issue moot.

The Associated Press will not declare a winner in the general election until all legal issues and challenges related to the primary are fully resolved.

The judge gave lawyers in the case 10 days to confer with election officials on a possible date for the new primary. Bridgeport City Attorney Mark Anastasi said Thursday in a statement that his office is reviewing the judge's decision and "all the legal options available to us.”

The State Election Enforcement Commission is investigating complaints related to the recent mayoral primary. It has also made criminal referrals concerning Ganim's 2019 primary and absentee ballots to state prosecutors.

Just last year, a judge ordered a new Democratic primary for a Bridgeport state representative race following complaints of mishandled absentee ballots and questionable security after two recounts and weeks of litigation.

In 2017, a judge ordered a new Democratic city council primary in Bridgeport be held after a single absentee ballot was discovered during a recount and decided the race. The judge, who acknowledged “irregularities” in the primary, also enlisted a lawyer to oversee the new primary and general election.

State funding was recently finalized to hire an independent election monitor for Bridgeport who would “detect and prevent irregularity and impropriety” in the Nov. 7 municipal election and the 2024 state election. However, the Secretary of the State's office says it has only received a handful of applications and hasn’t yet hired anyone for the two-year post. Instead, an interim monitor has been appointed.