Mayhem in Bridgeport prolongs the election for Connecticut’s next governor
By Marc Ferris
November 09, 2010
For many longtime political observers, the debacle surrounding last week’s election in Bridgeport ranks as one of the most bizarre circuses to ever play out in the city that P. T. Barnum called home.
Due to calamity in the Park City, election results for the governor’s office remained officially undetermined until last Friday evening — two days late by law — when Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz declared Democrat Dan Malloy, the former mayor of Stamford, the winner by 5,637 votes over Republican businessman Tom Foley (which is above the 2,000 threshold that triggers an automatic recount).
The follies in Bridgeport began when Democratic Registrar of Voters Santa Ayala printed 21,000 ballots, around half the number of voters who participated in the 2008 elections, though there are around 69,000 registered voters in the city. Republican registrar Joseph Borges said he and Ayala trade off certain duties and because the city’s voting rolls are stacked about 8 to 1 for Democrats, Ayala was responsible for the ballots, which were ordered before President Barack Obama arrived in town the weekend before Election Day, providing a bounce in the number of voters showing up at the polls. (Ayala did not respond to multiple phone calls from the Weekly.)
Ultimately, 26,650 people voted in Bridgeport. Not surprisingly, several polling places in the city ran out of ballots on Election Day and long lines of frustrated voters snaked out the doors. Democratic Mayor Bill Finch asked a state judge to issue an unprecedented order to keep a dozen polling sites open until 10 p.m., which was granted.
Because Bridgeport is divided into two state senate districts and six state representative districts, the ballots aren’t interchangeable at all 25 polling precincts. Officials scrambled to make photocopies, even using machines in Finch’s office. These ballots, which could not be fed through the voting machines, had to be counted by hand.
Flustered poll workers at the John F. Kennedy School, including a moderator who is nine months pregnant, decided to put a batch of 330 returns in a sealed and secured bag and send them to the registrars, who were holed up in a lunch room at the municipal McLevy Hall to determine the outcome. The so-called missing bag of ballots was found still in the school gym on Thursday, creating an uproar that prompted the assistant city attorney to rifle off a midnight press release denying any impropriety.
On Wednesday, fatigue among the registrars set in. Head Moderator Julie Cataniapizighelli went home to catch some shut-eye, only to be roused out of bed a few hours later by an election official escorted by a police officer.
With the statewide gubernatorial race running close, Bridgeport became the kingmaker in the contest.
Despite the lack of concrete returns, Bysiewicz and the Associated Press declared Malloy the unofficial winner on Wednesday. (The AP would later withdraw its announcement.) Finch also appointed a bipartisan three-man panel to look into why there weren’t enough ballots printed and will hold a public hearing on the matter on Nov. 16, though he vehemently denied allegations that it was done to save the city money, which both Borges and Ayala have made to the press. (Finch also did not return the Weekly’s calls.)
But the election was not over for poll workers. After reconvening at 3 p.m. on Thursday, they agreed to pull an all-nighter to re-tabulate the votes, calculating the city’s official tally.
At 6 a.m. Friday, Mayor Finch announced the results, which failed to include votes cast between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. (Malloy won the state with or without them.) State troopers then delivered the official tallies to the secretary of the state’s office in Hartford, which has until Nov. 25 to certify the outcome.
“I would like to have taken until Friday afternoon to release the numbers,” said Borges. “When you look at number after number after number, mistakes can be made, especially when you haven’t slept in days. When I came in on Thursday, I had to ask everyone what day it was because I just didn’t know.”
“We’ve seen it all in Bridgeport, but this is beyond disappointing,” said Chris Healy, chairman of the Republican State Central Committee. “Bridgeport has broadened its horizons to a place reserved for some banana republic. … A situation like this allows people to extrapolate all kinds of devious motives.”
Over the weekend, Foley’s campaign conducted a town-by-town review of all returns, comparing them with the official results posted by Bysiewicz’s office. In Torrington, for example, the returns and Bysiewicz’s official certification were off by 2,000 votes.
“I was well aware that there were problems in Bridgeport in the past and a lot of people warned me that you can’t expect a fair result there, but I never imagined anything quite as out of control as this,” Foley told the Weekly.
“It seems like no one’s in charge and there’s very little organization or structure to how they collected the votes and the information,” he said. “You had bags of ballots showing up two days later and the numbers were different every few hours. It doesn’t give people a warm and fuzzy feeling about the quality of the numbers coming out of there.”
Still, Foley conceded on Monday morning, calling the race “a conclusive victory for Dan Malloy.”
Healy is asking state officials and the U.S. Justice Department to look into mishaps in Bridgeport.
“I’m sure there will be a court case” says Borges.
In Hartford, several legislators, led by Republican state Sen. Kevin Witkos, joined the fray, demanding an investigation into the legalities of using the city’s reverse 911 system to alert voters that the polls would remain open two hours later than scheduled, since the system is only supposed to be used in the event of “life-threatening emergencies.”
Republicans are reporting several more irregularities that supposedly occurred in Bridgeport. Marc Delmonico, chair of the city’s Republican Town Committee, said that at the Roosevelt School, which was supposed to remain open, an observer visiting the school at 9:40 p.m. reported that the doors were shuttered. And moderators at the Black Rock School wouldn’t let him within ten feet of the people counting the photocopied ballots.
Other reported issues include more votes returned from precincts than there were voters checked off on the registers, poll workers who failed to show up, 250 absentee ballots registered to a vacant lot, changing vote counts and “routine violations of the 75-foot line prohibiting campaigners from undertaking partisan communications and union representatives who passed out sample ballots filled in with votes for Democratic candidates designed to look like real ballots,” according to Healy.
In the end, the reported numbers for Bridgeport resulted in the usual drubbing for Republicans: 17,973 to 4,099 in favor of Malloy.
Healy noted that several main players in the drama, Registrar Ayala, Mayor Finch and Secretary of the State Bysiewicz, are Democrats who had a vested interest in the outcome.
“It makes people suspicious,” said Healy. “You don’t have to be a cynical politician like me to see foul play, which started when the Democrats in the legislature gave $6 million to Malloy’s election fund, but at least they did that in broad daylight. In Bridgeport, it’s hard to say where the problems started. Poll workers were not well trained or well supervised and when you have that, honest mistakes happen and also not so honest mistakes happen.”
Still, Healy doubts a court challenge would have overturned the election. “Judges usually do not like to enter into election controversies unless the situation is extraordinary and you’ve got ironclad proof,” said Healy. “You can’t just prove sloppiness, you have to detail willful acts.”
Despite the results, or the motivations of Democratic operatives, Republicans are left to try and figure out how to appeal to more voters in Bridgeport and Connecticut’s other cities, which may be a must in future elections.
“There are significant Hispanic communities there and they don’t vote overwhelmingly for Democrats,” said Foley. “If we can bring jobs and real urban renewal, that should help the Republicans.”
In Bridgeport, Healy said that only a demographic sea change will help the Republican Party. “There’s a lot of poverty in Bridgeport,” he said. “They’re going to vote primarily Democratic unless you can turn it into a middle-class community.”