Ritter on the phone
House Speaker Matt Ritter talks into a phone during a special legislative session on Sept. 26, 2023. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut lawmakers voted to reschedule the state’s presidential primary Tuesday after Republicans tested the perimeters of the special session with unsuccessful proposals to suspend use of ballot boxes in response to allegations of fraud in Bridgeport’s primary election.

Both chambers of the General Assembly approved legislation moving Connecticut’s primary date up to the first Tuesday in April – a bipartisan proposal, which both parties hope will make the state more relevant in national politics. 

“This passed unanimously out of the Government Administrations and Elections Committee and House this session and was, in fact, introduced with testimony jointly issued from the chairs of the Democratic and Republican Parties of the state of Connecticut,” Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, said on the floor of the House.

While that proposal remained uncontroversial Tuesday – it passed unanimously in the House and in the Senate – members of the two parties clashed over what was not included in the bill, specifically a set of unsuccessful amendments proposed by Republican lawmakers in response to recent controversy in the state’s largest city, where Democratic mayoral challenger John Gomes has accused supporters of Mayor Joe Ganim of stuffing absentee ballot drop boxes. 

The case is under investigation by the State Election Enforcement Commission and is being reviewed by a judge in Bridgeport Superior Court, where Gomes is seeking to overturn election results indicating he lost to Ganim. 

On Tuesday, Republicans attempted to amend the special session bill to suspend the use of absentee ballot drop boxes and create a mandatory minimum sentence of one year for anyone convicted of criminally violating state election law.

Kelly and Candelora
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly and House Minority Leader Vin Candelora brief reporters on Sept. 26, 2023. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

“How many times every year are we here talking about Bridgeport and absentee ballot fraud,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said, “and nothing is ever done about it… For the sake of the voters, for the sake of the integrity of the election, let’s tighten it up a little bit.”

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly said that legal ramifications for bad actors often took too long to act as an effective deterrent.

“We need to have a deterrent for that,” Kelly said. “So when people decide, ‘I want to corrupt the system,’ if they get caught, they need to go to jail. Simple as that.”

During the session, Democrats in the House prevented a debate over two amendments by ruling them outside the perimeters of the special session called by Gov. Ned Lamont.

“This one has not been vetted by the Judiciary Committee and the proper place for this debate is in the Judiciary Committee next legislative session,” Rep. Steve Stafstrom, the committee’s co-chair, said of the proposal to create a new mandatory minimum sentence.

House Speaker Matt Ritter agreed with Stafstrom’s point of order, telling the chamber that if lawmakers debated issues outside those outlined in the governor’s call, they risked re-legislating every issue that did not pass during the session.

Republicans eventually narrowed their proposal on banning ballot drop boxes throughout the state. Instead, they unsuccessfully tried to give an election monitor in Bridgeport the authority to ban the drop boxes in that municipality. The amendment failed on a party line vote in the House.

Ritter, Blumenthal, and Rojas
House Speaker Matt Ritter, Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford, and Majority Leader Jason Rojas during a Sept. 26, 2023 press briefing. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

The Senate heard debate over amendments, including the proposal to prohibit use of ballot drop boxes. Sen. Marilyn Moore, a Bridgeport Democrat who four years ago lost a primary election to Ganim after a rush of absentee ballots, urged her colleagues to reject the ban.

 “The investigation that is taking place is one thing. Disenfranchising the voters by not having access to the ballot box… I don’t think answers the question of what we’re dealing with today,” Moore said. “If we decide to go in that direction, I would hope that we would have a much deeper conversation on elections and bring everyone to the table and have a hearing.”

Prior to the proceedings, Ritter assured reporters that every member took the allegations in Bridgeport seriously.

“The one question for today is do you take a wrecking ball approach and ban everything for everybody else or do you try to use a scalpel approach in dealing with a situation that we all agree is serious,” Ritter said. “Taking away voting rights making it easier for people to vote is a very serious thing.”

The bill did include language changing how an election monitor for the city of Bridgeport is funded. The $150,000 for the position will be funded through the Secretary of the State’s Office rather than the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

Another provision clarifies the terms of incumbent municipal officials in towns that moved their elections from May to November. The bill also standardizes the procedures for election recounts by clarifying who can observe the recount and when a moderator can eject a disruptive individual.

An unrelated provision delayed until next July a recent statutory requirement that emergency services personnel carry epinephrine injectors.

Lawmakers ultimately declined to take up an additional proposal, which would have changed how state election law treats campaign contributions made using online fundraising platforms. Last week, the change was met with opposition by both Republican legislators and the election regulators at the State Elections Enforcement Commission.