Bridgeport’s “ran-out-of-ballots” fiasco got Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s attention. “People were turned away at the polls and not allowed to vote!” she told a League of Women Voters meeting in Ridgefield recently. “We don’t need one more thing to cause people to lose faith in the system.” Just elected in November 2010, Merrill wouldn’t take office as Secretary of the State until January 2011. But she followed all that unfolded. The 2010 election’s signature foul-up became motivation for electoral reform. And it provides much of the context for a series of proposals Merrill and Governor Dannel Malloy have put before the Legislature this year.
“Goal: 1,200 absentee applications,” read a sign hanging in Mayor Bill Finch’s campaign headquarters last month. By the time polls opened at 6 a.m. on Sept. 27, that goal had been surpassed — more than 1,300 applications were turned in and nearly 900 ballots returned. Before the first paper ballot was marked, Finch already had a 420-vote lead over Democratic challenger Mary-Jane Foster on Primary Day, the fruits of a well-organized absentee ballot operation.
“We, the politicians, we will do whatever we can to get that vote,” said Lydia Martinez, an East Side city councilwoman who for years has led the most successful absentee ballot operations in the city. “You can give transportation to people. You can call people to ask if they got their absentee ballot. I do have a record of who votes by absentee every year. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know who the people are.”
More than 1,000 absentee ballot forms have been requested for the Democratic mayoral primary between Mary Jane Foster and Mayor Bill Finch and some have become the focus of elections complaints. The Mary Jane Foster for Mayor campaign has unleashed a pack of charges against the supporters of Mayor Bill Finch, charging that there is fraud and other illegal activities regarding absentee ballots.
Jason Bartlett, Foster’s campaign manager, said that Councilwoman Lydia N. Martinez, D-137, illegally assisted several elderly residents of Harborview Towers in filling out their absentee ballots. Martinez could not be reached for comment.
It takes persistence, patience and a bit of luck to get into Elizabeth Hendricks’ apartment house in Bridgeport. Both the front and back doors of the tall brick building are locked. A sign inside the vestibule warns residents not to let people coming up behind them into the building. So it takes a while for me to work my way into the building. Eventually someone who listens to my broken Spanish takes pity on me or, perhaps, thinks I’m visiting someone who’s expecting me. So I’m allowed inside.
Between the two glass doors at the entrance there’s a security panel with a code connected to phone each apartment. I dial the two-digit code for Hendricks and listen to the phone ring and ring and ring. It never gets answered.
Hendricks is the voter who filed an affidavit claiming state Rep. Ezequiel Santiago showed up on her doorstep last Thursday asking if she was voting by absentee ballot. When Hendricks informed him that her vote in next Tuesday’s primary would be cast by absentee ballot, Santiago made her an offer. “He told me that he would take the ballot from me,” Hendricks says in a sworn statement, “to turn in if I hadn’t sent it already.”
Mary-Jane Foster is back in the running for mayor after a Superior Court judge Friday overturned the rejection of her slate for the primary, the latest twist in what has been a tumultuous Democratic primary campaign. In a 34-page decision, Judge Barbara Bellis threw out Foster’s candidates for the Board of Education based on the state’s takeover of the city’s school system.
The judge then ordered that the Sept. 13 Democratic primary be postponed to Sept. 27 so that Foster can restart her campaign against Mayor Bill Finch.
Bellis found that the interplay of state and city statutes that Democratic Registrar of Voters Santa Ayala had relied on to deny Foster a ballot spot was confusing and ambiguous and that the Foster campaign had made every reasonable effort to follow the law.