Present, Past, and Future of Absentee Fraud in Connecticut

While the Legislature is considering no-excuse absentee voting, we have a story of current likely and past documented fraud, with the Secretary of the State recommending even more risky main-in voting.

New Haven Independent story:  Voters Charge Absentee Fraud, Intimidation <read>

When college sophomore Shavalsia Sabb cast her first-ever ballot, she had no idea she would land in the middle of New Haven’s latest voting controversy.

Sabb, a Southern Connecticut State University student from Norwalk, said she voted for Audrey Tyson and Tom Ficklin in a Democratic ward co-chair election two weeks ago. She had never heard of them before. She voted by absentee ballot, even though she had no plans to be out of town and no reason to believe she couldn’t make it to the polls on election day.

Then she un-did her ballot. And decided this voting business wasn’t worth all the trouble.

“I didn’t really feel comfortable voting anymore the way it happened,” Sabb said in a conversation this week. The 20-year-old first-time voter said she felt misled and pressured by both sides in the election.

Sabb is among at least 10 Ward 29 voters—students and seniors—who either un-did votes or have filed affidavits with the State Election Enforcement Commission complaining of hanky-panky in the way that the Tyson campaign collected absentee ballots for the March 6 primary for two Democratic Town Committee ward co-chair seats.

Absentee ballots made the difference in that race. Tyson and Ficklin lost to their opponents when polling place votes were tallied on the voting machines. When absentee ballots were counted, they became the winners—Ficklin by one vote. A full 116 out of Tyson’s 256 votes came by absentee.

And at least some of the voters claim that her campaign tricked them into filling out absentees they either weren’t supposed to use, or else pressured them into voting for her against their intentions or wishes. State law requires that someone file absentee ballots only if planning to be out of town or otherwise physically unable to come to the polls; or because of military of poll-working duty or religious prohibition.

Two things to note here:

  • This may well have made the difference in the apparent winner of the election.
  • If we have no-excuse absentee balloting this would still be illegal voter intimidation, but likely more difficult to prove that there was in fact intimidation, while in this case it is clear that the voters were convinced to illegally apply for such ballots.

Sadly this is not the first time for New Haven (and Connecticut):

Aggressive collection of absentee ballots is an art form among New Haven Democrats. Charges of fraud and mishandling of ballots have sprung up regularly over the years. One City Hall supporter, Angelo Reyes, was found guilty of stealing absentee ballots in a 2002 town committee race, for instance. But usually evidence or accusations of fraud—including former Newhallville Alderman Charlie Blango’s admission last fall that his staff improperly collected them in a hotly contested aldermanic race—are met with shrugs and no follow-up, although officials did disqualify 15 ballots in that race. (Click here to read about that.) The concern is that with absentees, unlike at a polling station, campaigns can pressure people into voting for their candidate whether or not they want it.

Secretary Merrill and Senator Looney weigh in:

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill (pictured) said she has a couple of ideas of how to tackle absentee ballot fraud and get more people voting in the process. One step is to eliminate absentees altogether and let everyone cast votes by mail in advance of an election, no questions asked. There would still be polling places, but fewer people would use them….

Merrill supports a bill currently before the legislature to amend the state constitution to allow no-fault absentee, or mail-in, voting. Other states, like Oregon, allow people weeks to bring in ballots in person or mail them in; 80 percent of voters do so, she said.

She cited the controversy over SCSU absentee ballots in new Haven’s Ward 29 as a reason to make the change.

“This is what we’ve got to stop. We’re making liars out of people. A lot of people are thinking: ‘I may be out of town. …’ We have no way of knowing” if people filled out ballots truthfully, Merrill said.

State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney said he’s “not convinced” about the no-fault mail-in ballot.

“You have a danger of losing the integrity of the ballot boxes,” he said. The process opens the door even wider to the possibility of employers or campaigns pressuring people to vote for candidates. “We fought 100 years ago for the secret ballot,” said Looney, who represents New Haven in the legislature.

“I would dispute that,” Merrill responded. “The fraud we’ve seen in elections is all absentee ballot fraud, people ‘helping’ [seniors and the disabled] fill out their ballots. That pool of people is already at risk.” She is supporting a separate measure to increase penalties for bribery, intimidation and other “real election fraud” to match the penalties for impersonating people at the polls.

Here we agree with Senator Loony. The point Secretary Merrill makes about all mail-in vs. Absentee voting fraud is a distinction without a difference. All mail-in would expose all mailed ballots to being voted by intimidation or mail box theft on the days they are all expected.  As we see from the two instances above it is not all filling out ballots for seniors.

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