How a nullified election in Connecticut became a rallying cry for Trump supporters

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An illegal voting scheme in Bridgeport, Connecticut, has become a rallying cry for former President Donald Trump and his supporters who are still pushing false claims about 2020 election security and trying to sow doubts ahead of the 2024 presidential contest.

While election experts say this fearmongering about fraud in US elections is overblown, they say the Connecticut case does highlight the potential vulnerabilities with mail-in voting.

Last week, a state judge nullified the results of September’s Democratic mayoral primary in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city, which has a history of voting scandals. The judge said surveillance footage showed allies of the incumbent mayor stuffing hundreds of ballots into dropboxes, a clear violation of state law, which restricts who can handle mail-in ballots.

Superior Court Judge William Clark, who presided over a case challenging the primary results, called the volume of evidence “perhaps unprecedented,” adding, “the videos are shocking to the court and should be shocking to all the parties.” (The now-invalidated primary results showed incumbent mayor Joe Ganim beating challenger John Gomes by 251 votes.)

The judge ordered a redo of the Democratic primary. Since he didn’t have the power to delay the general election, it went forward as planned on Tuesday. Unofficial results show Ganim in the lead by only about 1%, but Gomes acknowledged the outcome in a statement Thursday, saying he’s now focusing on the redo primary and “this fight is far from over.”

If Gomes wins the redo primary, there will be a redo general election. If Ganim wins the redo primary, his victory in Tuesday’s general election will be recognized and he will stay on as mayor. The redo hasn’t been scheduled yet.

Right-wing figures have used the real example of local mail-in ballot misconduct to support their fabricated claims of nationwide vote-rigging. Trump, Elon Musk and others have used the incident to raise questions about fraud tainting future elections. Musk’s post alone was viewed more than 39 million times.

“This is just a ‘tiny’ part of what’s happening in our country with voting. It’s all a giant scam!” Trump posted last week on Truth Social, his social media site.

That claim from Trump, the nation’s top election denier, is a massive distortion of reality, experts say. If anything, they note, the Connecticut case shows once again that when fraud happens, it’s almost always on a local scale, and often gets caught.

“To election losers who have claimed for three years that their election was stolen, Bridgeport was discovered within days or weeks,” said David Becker, founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research. “There still hasn’t been a shred of evidence presented to any court demonstrating widespread fraud in 2020.”

What happened in Bridgeport?

Mail-in voting became more popular than ever in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Voters can return these ballots by mailing them to election officials or putting them in designated dropboxes, which are often under surveillance or in government buildings.

In some states, third parties or political operatives are permitted to collect ballots en masse from voters and put them in dropboxes on their behalf. This is called “ballot collection” or “ballot harvesting.” But this practice is illegal in some states, including Connecticut, where voters can only authorize a family member or caregiver to drop off their mail-in ballot.

In the Bridgeport mayoral Democratic primary, the judge said surveillance footage showed two Ganim supporters “making multiple drops of multiple ballots” at dropboxes, potentially tainting “hundreds” of ballots in a race that was only decided by 251 votes.

John Gomes, a Democratic candidate for Bridgeport Mayor, speaks to supporters at his election night headquarters in Bridgeport, Conn. Nov. 7, 2023. - Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media/AP
John Gomes, a Democratic candidate for Bridgeport Mayor, speaks to supporters at his election night headquarters in Bridgeport, Conn. Nov. 7, 2023. - Ned Gerard/Hearst Connecticut Media/AP

The two operatives pleaded the Fifth when asked about the footage at a court hearing in the case last month. Neither of the operatives responded to CNN’s requests for comment. They haven’t been charged with any crimes at this time. And Ganim testified that he was “shocked” by the footage, and that his campaign told volunteers not to touch people’s ballots.

“Partisan individuals are required to distance themselves from absentee ballots,” the judge wrote. “In this case, there is evidence of partisans taking possession and harvesting ballots to engage in bulk drops of the absentee ballots into drop boxes.”

Therefore, the outcome of the primary was left “in serious doubt,” Clark wrote, and he was “unable to determine the legitimate result of the primary.” So, he ordered a new one.

The problem was with how mail-in ballots were collected, Clark said. There wasn’t evidence presented in the case showing that anyone fraudulently cast mail ballots on behalf of voters without their consent.

There is a tiny amount of voter fraud in the US, according to comprehensive nonpartisan studies. But Bridgeport has seen more than most: There were similar issues with mail-in ballots in local races in 2022, 2019 and 2017. Ganim, whose supporters were implicated in this year’s incident, previously served seven years in prison after being convicted in a federal corruption case that was unrelated to elections.

What’s the GOP reaction?

Whenever allegations of voter fraud crop up – regardless of whether they are true or false – they instantly become a smash hit in the right-wing ecosystem. This time around, the fraud was real.

Former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, who filed frivolous lawsuits in 2020 in hopes of overturning the results, posted about the Bridgeport scandal and celebrated the fact that “a court with integrity looks at evidence and orders new election!” and included the hashtag #elections2024. She pleaded guilty last month to state crimes in Georgia stemming from her separate attempts to interfere with the 2020 election results.

Musk, the billionaire who often promotes right-wing disinformation on his platform X, formerly known as Twitter, shared a story about the Bridgeport race getting overturned and said, “the only question is how common it is.”

The chairman of the Connecticut GOP used the incident to argue that ballot dropboxes should be banned nationwide.

And one of the organizers of the infamous Trump rally on January 6, 2021, Amy Kremer, connected Bridgeport to the last presidential election, falsely claiming “we had the same type of evidence on a much larger scale” in 2020. She has continued fanning the flames of supposed fraud and is calling for “audits in every county” in Kentucky, in response to the state’s Democratic governor winning re-election on Tuesday.

How are they right?

Isolated voter fraud incidents do occur. And Bridgeport is one of those uncommon examples of misconduct at a large enough scale that the results of the election were tainted.

There is strong consensus among election experts that expanding mail-in voting doesn’t automatically help Democrats or Republicans. But they say it can increase the chances for fraud, from almost-never to rare-but-still-possible, if safeguards aren’t in place.

“You can’t isolate what happened in Bridgeport as a one-off that cannot be replicated in other elections,” said Jason Snead, executive director of Honest Elections Project, a conservative group that backs stricter voting laws, including banning ballot collection.

Surveillance cameras were pointed at the dropboxes in Bridgeport, but the feeds “are not monitored actively by the police,” according to Gomes’ lead attorney Bill Bloss.

“It almost didn’t get caught,” he said. “I watched 2,100 hours of videos at 16 times speed.”

For conservatives, Bridgeport is the latest case in a growing list of incidents, including a 2018 House race in North Carolina and a 2020 city council election in New Jersey.

“When you run widespread mail voting without adequate safeguards, that process is inherently vulnerable,” Snead said. “Bridgeport is a proof of concept for people to engage in illicit behaviors and take advantage of vulnerabilities in our voting systems.”

How are they wrong?

The Bridgeport case demonstrates how difficult it is to pull off election fraud without anyone noticing, because of the built-in protections and backstops against fraud. And nearly all of the examples of proven fraud are on a local level – not a statewide election.

“When fraud does exist, it happens extremely rarely,” said Becker, the nonpartisan election expert. “Fraud doesn’t work on a national scale. It has to be in one jurisdiction. Once you start expanding it out, it automatically gets caught. Virtually every instance of fraud gets discovered and caught.”

In 2020, Trump lost Michigan by more than 154,000 votes, he lost Pennsylvania by about 80,000 votes, and Nevada by more than 33,000 votes. Yet he claimed they were fraudulent.  The 251-vote margin in the Bridgeport primary was “literally 40 times smaller” than any of Trump’s 2020 margins, Becker said.

Vote-by-mail is actually a “wonderful thing for detecting election fraud,” Becker said. If a bad actor tries to fraudulently request, fill out,  and submit mail ballots on behalf of unsuspecting voters – which Trump has claimed – that would very likely get caught when those voters show up at their polling place, where officials check to make sure that a ballot hasn’t already been cast in their name.

The Bridgeport debacle also is a clear contrast with 2020, where Trump’s lawyers challenged the results in more than 60 lawsuits in state and federal courts, and failed at every step of the way, with one judge after another rejecting their claims of mass fraud.

“I won my case because there was evidence of misconduct offered into a court of law, seen by a judge, and ruled on,” said Bloss, the attorney for Gomes. “The moral of the story, at least in Bridgeport, is that if you can prove your case in court, you can win.”

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