This article has been updated to reflect the version published in print on Monday, Nov. 4.
Charges of voter fraud surfaced on Friday when New Haven City Clerk Ron Smith filed a complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission alleging criminal mismanagement of absentee ballots in Ward 8.
According to the complaint at least eight voters in a Wooster Square elderly complex gave their ballots to another resident of the building, who either helped fill the ballots out or simply put them in the mail. Both of these actions would be in violation of state elections statute. Applications for all eight of the ballots now under scrutiny were checked out by Michael Smart, the current Ward 8 alderman running against Smith for the city clerk spot.
Smart was endorsed by the New Haven Democratic Town Committee in July and is running on a ticket with Democratic-endorsed mayoral candidate Toni Harp ARC ’78. Smith, a 10-year incumbent, recently allied with Harp’s opponent: petitioning Independent candidate Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10.
One of the city clerk’s principal tasks is handling absentee ballots, an irony not lost on Smart’s critics.
In a Friday statement, Smart fired back at Smith, accusing him of being a “do nothing no-show” city clerk. Smart asked voters not to pass judgment until all the facts are unearthed by the state commission, which does not have its next meeting until Nov. 20, 15 days after the election.
“I look forward to a full investigation of this matter, and of course, I will cooperate fully,” Smart said.
It was Andy Ross, an Independent candidate for alderman in Ward 8, who first brought the matter to Smith’s attention. Ross, who is running against Democratic-endorsed Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 to replace Smart as alderman, said he encountered numerous residents in the elderly complex who said they had given their absentee ballots to the woman named in the complaint — or that they planned to do so.
“People were saying that they had handed over their ballot to a certain person and that person took care of it from there,” Ross said. “In some cases people would admit to me that this certain individual would even help them fill it out or fill it out for them.”
One evening, when he went to the elderly complex to deliver letters to voters who had applied for absentee ballots, Ross said he encountered the woman, who told him she had already collected all of the ballots. He quoted her as saying, “Everybody has turned in their ballot, I have them all, I took care of it.”
He said the woman in question is widely known as a volunteer on Smart’s campaign. Ross said he confirmed with the city’s registrar of voters that this would constitute illegal campaign activity before returning to Winslow-Celentano to collect affidavits from residents who had turned over their ballots. He said 11 residents signed written statements saying they had given their ballots to the woman, who had described herself to them as “in charge of absentee ballots.”
Ross said when he presented the affidavits to the City Clerk’s Office, Smith opted to file a formal complaint with the state.
In addition to the Winslow-Celentano elderly complex on Warren Street — where the alleged wrongdoer resides — the complaint also queries absentee ballot procedure at the Farnam Courts housing complex on Franklin Street. Large numbers of ballots were sent in from Farnam Courts at the same time and with no precise return address, Smith wrote in the formal complaint.
Ross said the potential fraud does not affect the clerk’s race alone, accusing Smart of sending out volunteers all over the city to strong-arm residents into voting for himself, Harp and Greenberg — and using absentee ballots to confirm an early lead in the election. He said the fraud could be extensive enough to prompt a repeat election, at least in the aldermanic race.
According to Deputy City Clerk Sally Brown, Smart has checked out 320 absentee ballot applications. State law provides that anyone may check out absentee ballot applications and help voters fill them out. The ballots themselves, however, may only be handled by the individual voter or a family member or caretaker.
181 absentee ballots have been issued so far in Ward 8, a fairly dense concentration amid the 1,487 such ballots that have been issued across the city’s 30 wards, Brown said.
Elicker echoed Ross’s concerns at a Friday afternoon press conference at Farnam Courts.
“There are indications that Mike Smart is involved in these absentee ballot issues, and since he’s on a joint ticket with Harp, there’s some concern that what’s going on may help Harp get more votes,” Elicker told the News, citing the fact that Harp won the Ward in September’s Democratic primary with 49 percent of the vote but claimed 87 percent of the absentee ballots. She drew 91 absentee ballot votes in the ward, more than double the number she received in any other area.
Harp addressed the allegations in Sunday’s WTNH televised debate, saying no one on her campaign has improperly handled absentee ballots.
“These are all allegations,” Harp added. “If there’s wrongdoing, it should be prosecuted.”
This is the fifth time in the past four years that charges of absentee-ballot fraud have been leveled in New Haven elections.