Secretary Of The State: It's Officially Over For Pelto's Nominating Petition Effort

When the end officially arrived for Jonathan Pelto's hopes of petitioning his way onto the November election ballot as a third-party candidate for governor, the only question was how far short he had fallen of the legal requirement for the signatures of 7,500 registered voters.

The answer, according to the office of Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, was 3,182. Pelto and his campaign volunteers turned in 4,318 valid signatures, Merrill's office said.

The dissident Democrat had said a week ago that his chances seemed slim, and Friday's announcement only confirmed his fears.

"We dropped the ball," Pelto said. On Friday, he received a letter from Merrill's office informing him that he had failed to qualify. He took responsibility for not "centralizing" his petition operation and leaving it to about 200 volunteers with little political experience to gather signatures and turn them in at town halls throughout the state. That's why Pelto never had a reliable count as to where he stood on the way to 7,500.

"It was far more challenging than I had expected," he said.

Pelto is steeped in politic experience at the state Democratic Party level and served for eight years in the General Assembly as a representative from Mansfield beginning in 1985. Mainstream Democrats feared that his presence on the November ballot might draw away enough votes from Democratic incumbent Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to throw a close election to Republican nominee Tom Foley.

And yet it was Joe Visconti of West Hartford, who served only one term on the local town council a decade ago, who managed to petition his way onto the Nov. 4 gubernatorial ballot. Both candidates started their petition drives in early June, and the deadline for submitting petition forms to local town halls for validation was Aug. 6. Since then, Merrill's office has been counting signatures.

Visconti reached 7,500 more than a week ago.

How did a one-term councilman succeed where Pelto failed?

'Cardiovascular Campaigning'

Visconti, a lifelong Republican who had been a tea party activist, said he learned how to gather voters' signatures on petitions when he and other opponents of the Blue Back Square development sought referendum votes years ago.

He said it's not only a matter of "cardiovascular campaigning" — in other words, all-out, strenuous effort in a limited span of time — but also of knowing where to find the richest mother lodes for signatures.

For example, Visconti said he had 18 volunteers outside the polls on July 29 in Naugatuck to catch people after they had voted in a budget referendum. If you're looking for signatures of registered voters that won't be disqualified later as invalid by election officials, where better to look than a polling place — and who better to approach than somebody wearing a sticker that says, "I voted today"?

"We got 1,400 signatures that day alone," Visconti said.

Visconti, a gun rights advocate, received permission to put up a 10-by-10-foot tent at Hoffman's Gun Center in Newington, and a committed supporter sat there seven days a week during business hours. That accounted for about 1,500 signatures.

He had people outside Stop & Shop supermarkets throughout the state, and at community gatherings such as the July 19 celebration of Samuel Colt's 200th birthday at Colt Park in Hartford.

One big difference between Visconti's operation and Pelto's was his centralized accounting. Visconti knew how many signatures were being turned in at town halls throughout the state.

The 'Dirty Dozen'

Visconti's other great asset was a core of volunteers — a mixture of conservative, tea party and 2nd Amendment activists — whom he referred to as "my dirty dozen," who stood out from scores of other petition circulators. They accounted for about 70 percent of the 10,200 or so signatures that he submitted to town clerks throughout the state. The signatures above 7,500 were a buffer in case too many were invalidated by local town clerks.

The validated signatures were sent to Merrill's people in Hartford to be counted, and once the total reached 7,500, the counting stopped and Visconti received a letter informing him that he would be on the ballot.

Visconti said it was important to have helpers who weren't afraid to approach a stranger and make a "cold call," like a salesperson, explaining in as few words as possible that signing a petition doesn't commit them to vote for someone — but only gives that person a chance to get on the ballot.

"Not everybody is cut out to do that," Visconti said.

"It's disappointing," Pelto said of his failed bid, adding that hoped his effort "had some impact on the discussion" in the campaign. "I certainly hope to continue to have impact … but it won't be in the way I had hoped." He said he had looked forward to participating in gubernatorial debates.

Pelto, while acknowledging that he fell far short, said his experience "was an eye-opener about the primitive process of certifying names" on nominating petitions. He said that although it ended up making no difference, town officials disqualified about 200 of his signatures either illegally or inappropriately. "The problem needs to be addressed," he said.

In a statement issued Friday, Pelto said that in the coming months he will "seek to partner with other third parties, their supporters, and those who believe in a more open and democratic process so that we can develop and advocate for a legislative package that will reduce the unfair aspects of the petitioning process and create a more open, democratic system of campaigns and elections."

He congratulated Visconti for his success, saying that "Joe has shown that the People can challenge the incumbency parties and shake up the establishment."

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