Officials in West Haven failed to comply with certain election statutes during the 2021 mayoral race but those errors were not enough to impact Mayor Nancy Rossi’s narrow reelection victory, the state Supreme Court concluded in a 34-page opinion released this week.
The high court’s recent opinion explained its 2022 ruling upholding the contested results of the mayoral contest, which Rossi won by 32 votes following a recount. The decision stems from a lawsuit brought by Republican challenger Barry Lee Cohen.
In his complaint, Cohen asked a state Superior Court judge to order a new election on the grounds that local officials had failed to follow laws governing the processing of absentee ballots. The judge agreed that officials had failed to comply with some statutes, but reasoned that those failures had not impacted the outcome and did not warrant disenfranchising voters.
In an opinion authored by Justice Andrew McDonald, the high court agreed that Cohen had not offered evidence to demonstrate that the election results were in doubt.
“Based on our review of the record, we conclude that, despite the lack of compliance by the election officials, the trial court correctly found that the plaintiff failed to satisfy his burden of proving that the reliability of the results of the mayoral election was seriously in doubt,” McDonald wrote.
Cohen’s case rested largely on discrepancies in how city officials handled absentee ballots cast during the election. Those included violations of rules requiring the city clerk to sign and date the outer envelopes of absentee ballots as they were received. Another error involved a requirement that the clerk and the registrars of voters file paperwork documenting the number of ballots they received as they were delivered by the clerk.
Both courts agreed that city officials made errors — just not enough to change the outcome of the election.
In her June, 2022 decision upholding the election results, Superior Court Judge Robin L. Wilson concluded that a total of seven absentee ballots should have been rejected as a result of errors. Six ballots lacked information explaining the relationship between the voter and the person who delivered the ballot. One other ballot was cast by someone who was not a valid voter.
“[T]he failure of West Haven election officials to strictly comply with statutory requirements when presiding over this election is concerning,” Wilson wrote. “But their failures do not warrant disenfranchising the hundreds of West Haven absentee ballot voters who did nothing wrong. Nor do the election officials’ shortcomings justify giving the plaintiff a second bite at the electoral apple.”
In the recent Supreme Court opinion, McDonald said the chain of custody for the absentee ballots in the case had been established. However, he said those facts had to be litigated on a ballot-by-ballot basis because local officials had failed to comply with the statutes designed to document that ballot security. McDonald called that approach “clearly untenable at a systemic level.”
“[T]his conclusion should not obscure the vital importance of our message to local election officials, which is the necessity to adhere to the prescribed statutory procedures without deviation,” McDonald wrote. “Compliance is necessary, not only to maintain strong and unwavering public confidence in our elections, but also to facilitate the timely, efficient, and proper resolution of election disputes that may end up in court.”
Reached by phone, Cohen referred questions on the case to his lawyer, Vincent Marino, who offered no immediate comment about the Supreme Court opinion on Friday. Rossi’s office also had no immediate comment.