HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A woman approaches a drop box in the dark with what appears to be handfuls of ballots. At a different drop box, someone else is seen making multiple trips to insert ballots. At yet another, the same car stops on at least three separate occasions, with different people stepping out and heading to the box.
It’s not a trailer for the latest conspiracy movie about rigged elections. Instead, the video footage has become central to a real-world controversy over potential fraud involving ballot drop boxes, a favorite target of right-wing conspiracy theorists since former President Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election.
The accusations of drop box fraud are not coming from those pushing fringe election claims or from skeptical Republicans who have long favored eliminating or severely restricting use of the boxes. They are being made by Democrats — two candidates vying for mayor in Connecticut’s largest city, in a heavily Democratic state that began allowing drop boxes to be used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republicans have seized on the spat, which is now headed to a legal showdown that could result in a new election, to say it validates their concerns that drop boxes are ripe for fraud.
State Rep. Doug Dubitsky, a Republican, evoked the widely debunked movie “2000 Mules” during a legislative debate over the controversy surrounding the Bridgeport mayor’s race.
“How do we know that it’s only Bridgeport?” said Dubitsky, who represents an area of the state that has grown more conservative in the Trump era. “This exact same thing could be happening in every single municipality in this state. We should get rid of these boxes completely.”
On the surface, the controversy is a local matter: Two candidates are accusing each other of fraud in a municipal election. But its ripple effects travel far beyond the city of 148,000 and could have implications for the elections next year across the country.
Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has been doubling down on his lies about his loss in the 2020 election as he faces criminal charges related to his attempts to overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s win. Despite mounds of evidence showing the election was fair and accurate, a solid majority of Republicans still believe it was not.
Among the many conspiracy theories that have fueled that belief on the right are those surrounding ballot drop boxes.
News of the Bridgeport videos has spread through right-wing social media platforms and on far-right media, connecting the controversy to the 2020 stolen election claims. Users have promoted the investigation as evidence for the persistent, false narratives about widespread fraud connected to ballot drop boxes.
The videos and the fact that the claims are being pushed by two Democratic candidates threaten to further inflame criticism from the right that drop boxes are vehicles for election mischief. It’s a perception that election officials have been fighting for three years.
“It risks making what is the exception the rule in some folks’ mind,” said David Levine, a former local election official in Idaho who is now a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. “It’s well established that drop boxes themselves are very safe and secure.”
The videos have trickled out in the weeks since the Sept. 12 primary in the Bridgeport mayor’s race between incumbent Joe Ganim and his challenger, John Gomes, the city’s former chief administrative officer. Gomes, who lost by 251 votes out of 8,173 cast, filed an election challenge a week later after a video appeared to show a Ganim supporter putting several envelopes into a drop box outside a city hall annex in the early morning.
Ganim, who has denied involvement, is pointing to another batch of videos posted online that appear to show Gomes’ supporters making multiple stops at other ballot drop boxes. Gomes has said he has spoken with those shown in the videos and been told they were dropping off ballots for relatives.
In Connecticut, voters using a drop box must return their completed ballot themselves or designate certain family members, police, local election officials or a caregiver to do it for them.
A judge will hear arguments in Gomes’ legal challenge this coming Thursday, with testimony expected over several days. Gomes is asking the judge to declare him the winner or order a new primary election.
The state has launched its own investigation. Some Republican lawmakers, who had raised concerns about the security of drop boxes during the pandemic, said the Bridgeport videos prove they were correct.
“No one can tell me that there are not people across this country, and certainly in this state, certainly in the last couple of weeks, that are not questioning the integrity of our elections. And I’m talking about people in both political parties,” said state Sen. Rob Sampson, the Senate’s top Republican on the General Assembly’s Government Elections and Administration Committee. “This is not isolated to President Trump saying the election was stolen in 2020.”
Drop boxes are considered by many election officials to be safe and secure and have been used to varying degrees by states across the political spectrum with few problems. A survey by The Associated Press of state election officials across the United States found no cases of fraud, vandalism or theft related to drop boxes in the 2020 presidential election that could have affected the results.
In many cases, drop boxes are placed in locations where they can be monitored by election staff or security cameras. Local election offices typically have procedures to ensure the security of the ballots from the time they are retrieved until they arrive at the election office.
Yet the conspiracy theories and efforts to get rid of them persist. Since the 2020 election, five states have moved to ban ballot drop boxes while six have moved to limit their availability, according to data collected by the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks voting-related legislation in the states and advocates for expanded voter access.
“It’s not the ballot boxes that are the problem,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of the voter advocacy group Common Cause in Connecticut. “In this particular case, it seems like the problem is the leadership of campaigns that permit that kind of activity, that has staff, that has campaign staff who … would put ballots in big envelopes and stuff them into the ballot box.”
Democrats, who control the Connecticut Legislature and all statewide offices, have so far been successful in pushing back against attempts to ban drop boxes while taking steps to address the controversy. They’ve also expressed shock over the videos but urged Republicans to wait for the investigations to play out.
“The one question for today, and that’s going to come up, is do you take a wrecking ball approach and ban everything for everybody else?” House Speaker Matt Ritter, a Hartford Democrat, told reporters late last month. “Or do you try to use more of a scalpel approach in dealing with a situation that we all agree is serious?”
Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Christine Fernando in Chicago contributed to this report.