BRIDGEPORT – A judge ruled on Wednesday to overturn the city’s Democratic primary election, initially won by incumbent Mayor Joe Ganim, following claims of absentee ballot fraud by his opponent, John Gomes.
After two weeks of evidentiary hearings for Gomes’s absentee ballot fraud lawsuit, Judge William Clark ordered a new Democratic primary based on 180 pieces of evidence presented by Gomes’s legal counsel.
In the 37-page ruling, Clark said the video footage presented by Bill Bloss – Gomes’s attorney – was particularly alarming.
“Mr. Ganim was also correct to be ‘shocked’ at what he saw on the video clips in evidence that were shown to him while he was on the witness stand,” Clark wrote. “The videos are shocking to the court and should be shocking to all the parties.
Ganim was one the many city officials called to the Fairfield Judicial District Superior Courthouse for questioning, along with Wanda Geter-Pataky, vice chair of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee and operations specialist for the city, and Eneida Martinez, a former City Council member accused by Gomes of stuffing ballot dropboxes.
At the witness stand, Ganim told the court he was “shocked” by an 18-minute video – subpoenaed by Gomes from Bridgeport police – that appeared to show 12 instances of Geter-Pataky either depositing stacks of ballots herself or handing ballots to others from behind her reception desk, and four instances of Martinez dropping off ballots.
Asked about the footage during the hearings, both Geter-Pataky and Martinez asserted their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination . Ganim, who appeared to win the primary by 250 votes after a count of absentee ballots, denied any involvement in the alleged fraud.
Under state election law, absentee ballots may be only returned by the ballot applicant, a family member, a police officer, an election official or a caretaker. Clark said the footage provides direct evidence that state law was violated when “unauthorized partisans” handled and submitted ballots.
In addition to the police footage, Bloss argued in court that many of the absentee ballots should never have been counted given that they were improperly stamped.
According to state law, Bloss argued, stamped ballots accepted by Town Clerk Charles Clemons should have included the date and time they were received and the Clemons’ signature. But many of the ballots presented by Bloss were missing the signature.
In a closing brief, the Office of the Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas – a defendant named in the lawsuit alongside Ganim, Clemons and Democratic Registrar of Voters Patricia Howard – argued that the court should reject the challenge to the absentee ballots.
Clark accepted the office’s recommendation, finding the stamp to be “substantially compliant.”
Still, the video evidence allowed Gomes to overturn the primary – the aim of his challenge in court – and in a statement, he reflected on his win.
“This is a victory for the people of Bridgeport,” Gomes said. “Our campaign always believed that the integrity of our democratic process must be upheld and Superior Court Judge William Clark agreed.”
On a Wednesday phone call with CT Examiner, Bloss said the new ruling is a “necessary first step” towards correcting absentee ballot misuse in Bridgeport.
“It’s a well-reasoned ruling. Very fact-intensive,” Gomes said. “I think Judge Clark’s expression of shock at the videos was something that many people shared – everybody except the city officials, frankly.”
Rather than ordering a new primary on a specific date, Clark ordered city and state officials to work together to schedule the new election.
According to Bloss, the Nov. 7 general election will still list Ganim as the Democratic candidate and Gomes as the Independent candidate on the ballot.
If Ganim or one of the other mayoral candidates win the general election, Bloss said, the new primary would likely be held in December. But if Gomes wins, he said he would assume the court would cancel the new primary.
Asked how the Wednesday decision could impact future Bridgeport elections, Bloss said there should be major reform to the city processes.
“I think there are some reforms that can be used in terms of the application process, in terms of preparing signatures, in terms of identifying people who return absentee ballots on behalf of voters if they use dropboxes or the U.S. mail,” Bloss said. “The system works everywhere in the state of Connecticut, except in Bridgeport.”
While he said it was not up to him to investigate the alleged fraud further, Bloss told CT Examiner that he would not be surprised if the state pursued criminal charges against Geter-Pataky and Martinez moving forward.