Two months ago, Joe Ganim received the most votes in the race for mayor of Bridgeport, Conn. This week, the city will vote again — to decide if he should even be the Democratic candidate.
The unlikely and confusing situation arose after a judge ruled that there was enough evidence of misconduct in the Democratic primary in September to throw its result — a victory by Mayor Ganim — into doubt. The judge pointed to videos showing “partisans” repeatedly stuffing absentee ballots into drop boxes.
But in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city, ballot manipulation has undermined elections for years.
In interviews and in court testimony, residents of the city’s low-income housing complexes described people sweeping through their apartment buildings, often pressuring them to apply for absentee ballots they were not legally entitled to.
Sometimes, residents say, campaigners fill out the applications or return the ballots for them — all of which is illegal.
“Bridgeport has a very long, tortured history of absentee ballot abuse,” said Bill Bloss, a lawyer who persuaded the judge to order the fall primary to be rerun.
“It’s not a secret,” he added. “It has been going on for years.”
Last June, the State Election Enforcement Commission found evidence of criminality in the 2019 Democratic primary for mayor. In 2022, a judge ordered a Democratic primary for state representative to be rerun amid an allegation of ballot fraud.
In 2018, Bridgeport was forced to hold three primaries for City Council. The first was invalidated over a miscounted absentee ballot; the second was voided by the State Supreme Court in part because a police officer had improperly collected absentee ballots.
Similar episodes have been documented back to the 1980s, though political observers say they cannot remember how the tradition of ballot manipulation initially took hold. Such manipulation has led to forgery charges, fines and even bans on participating in campaigns.
“It is just simply part of the electoral strategy political culture in Bridgeport,” Mr. Bloss said. “The perception is that you can win elections in Bridgeport by harvesting absentee ballots. And so, they do it.”
In both the 2019 and 2023 races for mayor, the beneficiary of questionable acts in the initial Democratic primary vote was Mayor Ganim, the incumbent, who once spent seven years in prison on federal corruption charges, then regained the mayor’s post in 2015.
In both of the recent primaries, Mayor Ganim came up short among voters who voted in person but overwhelmed his opponent in the absentee ballot count.
“It is routine here,” said State Senator Marilyn Moore, whose district includes parts of Bridgeport and who lost to Mayor Ganim in 2019. She added: “People just accept it. Like, ‘It’s just Bridgeport.’”
In a radio interview last month, Mayor Ganim took responsibility for his supporters’ mishandling of absentee ballots in the fall. He said he had not known about it, and called it a “black eye” for the city. He declined to comment for this article.
The rules for absentee ballots differ from state to state. In recent years, there have been efforts to expand their use as a way to encourage voter participation. There have also been campaigns to restrict absentee ballots as a way to prevent fraud or other misconduct, though some such efforts have been criticized as racially discriminatory.
In Connecticut, only certain voters qualify to vote by absentee ballot, such as people who will be out of town on Election Day. Other legitimate reasons include a physical disability or military service.
Most voters are supposed to fill out their own applications for a ballot, complete it themselves — without influence or oversight — and return it to the city. (A few trusted people, like immediate family members, are allowed to return it on their behalf.) But campaigners may not collect ballots and return them for others, a practice referred to as “ballot harvesting.”
A far greater percentage of voters in Bridgeport use absentee ballots than in many other Connecticut communities, according to the Connecticut Mirror. In the 2023 primaries, almost 23 percent of Bridgeport’s votes were absentee ballots, compared with about 15 percent in Hartford and under 5 percent in New Haven.
In 2019, three voters sued Mayor Ganim, city election officials and others. About a dozen voters testified that someone else had filled out at least part of their absentee ballot application for them, or submitted a fraudulent application. Others testified that absentee ballots never came or had just shown up in the mail, even if they hadn’t applied. Others said they did not vote, but the town clerk had a record of their ballots.
One woman testified that she had been paid $15 an hour by Mayor Ganim’s campaign to circulate ballot applications. She said she received personal checks from the mayor.
Bridgeport Generation Now Votes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout, helped the three voters with the lawsuit. The organization canvassed and found vulnerable residents — those who were older, disabled or not fluent in English — who said they had been targeted by campaigners to vote by absentee ballot.
“They stay, they have you vote, they tell you who to vote for and then they take your ballot and leave,” Callie Gale Heilmann, the group’s co-director, said in an interview.
Some voters refer to the people who come through as “absentee ballot queens.”
“They come all the time,” Caroline Askew, who lived in public housing, testified in the 2019 case. “They come every election. Before every election. They come after hours, after management is gone or on the weekend.”
Kadeem Graham, another voter, testified that a City Council member, Alfredo Castillo, filled out most of an absentee ballot application for him, checked in repeatedly to see if the ballot arrived, then returned and took it.
“I told him that I had not filled out anything on the ballot at all or anything,” Mr. Graham testified. “He just asked me to sign my name on one of the papers and told me he got it.”
“That was the last I saw of the ballot,” he added. “I handed it to him and then that was it. I’m — I’m not sure what happened.”
Mr. Castillo, a Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment. He is one of three people whom the state election board recommended for criminal charges in connection with the 2019 primary.
Vanessa Liles, 51, a community organizer and one of the plaintiffs in the 2019 lawsuit, said in an interview that some voters felt intimidated. Others just don’t know their rights.
“It’s essentially stealing votes,” she said. “Where absentee ballot was looking to make the vote more expansive, the process that’s used in Bridgeport was really constricting people’s right to vote.”
But Tony Barr, the founder and chairman of Bridgeport’s New Movement Party, argues that helping voters is just common sense.
On a recent afternoon, he was sitting in a car outside the P.T. Barnum Apartments, a subsidized housing complex, after helping residents apply for absentee ballots.
He said he comes back to see if the ballot has arrived, and typically checks back in to see if the residents have voted. He also brings stamps, just in case. Often, the ballot is still there.
Mr. Barr said that he sometimes takes older people out for a fast food meal after they drop off their ballots. “It’s not that they’re being voter suppressed — it’s that they’re just lazy,” he said.
He added, “People don’t get up off of their behinds unless they’re getting something for free.”
Activists and elected officials in Bridgeport say there has been little effort from the governor, legislators or other state leaders to fix the election issues.
“If the leaders of this state can’t show they’re responsible for making sure that democracy works everywhere in the state, then we’re looking at a very serious problem,” said Kim McLaughlin, 69, a community organizer.
Some speculate that Democratic leaders have little interest in rocking the boat.
“No one wins an election statewide if they don’t win Bridgeport,” Mr. Barr said. He added: “Why do you think they haven’t come out to speak negatively about Bridgeport? Because they need it.”
Gov. Ned Lamont, a second-term Democrat, declined to comment. His office referred questions to the secretary of the state’s office, which appointed a single Bridgeport election monitor in the general election — well after many absentee ballots had been sent out.
For the new primary on Tuesday — in which Mayor Ganim and his opponent, John Gomes, will face each other again — the secretary of the state appointed two monitors.
The judge who ordered the primary redo, William Clark, did not have the authority to postpone the general election in November, which Mayor Ganim won.
If Mayor Ganim wins the second primary, it’s not entirely clear what will happen; he has not been sworn into office for a new term. Mr. Gomes, who successfully challenged the first primary outcome, said he would not force a new contest.
Stephanie Thomas, the secretary of the state, attributed the lack of state intervention in Bridgeport to the “clunkiness” of government and the limited powers of the executive branch. She said legislators should pass laws providing more oversight, and voters need to know their rights and speak up if they see malfeasance.
Tawanda White, a P.T. Barnum resident, has voted absentee in the past — even though, she said, she was perfectly able to vote in person.
People came by her apartment with an application and stamps to help her send it in.
Ms. White, 54, is fed up with the entire process. In a recent election, she sent in a blank ballot, a protest against what she sees as the corrupt process — and the lack of investment in the community.
“Whether we vote or don’t vote, we’re still screwed,” she said, sitting on her sofa on a recent Saturday afternoon. She added: “They need our vote just to get where they need to be. And then when they get it, what do they do? Nothing.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.