HUDSON—Columbia County’s two election commissioners are scheduled to go to the state Board of Elections in Albany Thursday, April 23, to join their counterparts from other counties in the 20th Congressional District to decide whether to count some of the contested ballots in the unresolved race to fill the House seat. But that won’t end the legal and procedural wrangling that has left the post vacant since a March 31 special election.
The latest count in the election to fill the seat vacated by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand had Democrat Scott Murphy leading Republican Jim Tedisco by a 401 votes out of more than 154,000 ballots cast. But many absentee ballots remain to be counted, and there are challenges raised by representatives of both parties that must still be resolved. The legal challenges are being heard by Judge James Brand of the state Supreme Court in Poughkeepsie, and he has ordered county election commissioners from the 10-county district to bring contested materials, including absentee ballots and ballot applications, to the Board of Elections in Albany Thursday.
“We’re going on Thursday and don’t know exactly what will happen,” said Columbia County’s Democratic Party Election Commissioner Virginia Martin in a phone conversation Tuesday. The ballots Ms. Martin and the other commissioners will be taking with them to Albany are those that were marked ambiguously, with extraneous marks that make it difficult to discern the voter’s intent.
Regardless of the outcome of the meeting Thursday it is likely that the side with fewer votes will appeal the decision. Bob Brehm, deputy director of public information for the state Board of Elections said this week that if a ruling by Judge Brand is appealed, the next stop would be Second Division Appellate Court.
One of the most hotly contested issues involves voters who do not live in the district full time. Ms. Martin said that the Tedisco campaign has questioned a number of absentee ballots because “they had reason to believe that the voter had a primary residence elsewhere.” Many Columbia County residents live part time in New York City, Florida or elsewhere, but state law allows those with second homes to decide where to register to vote. A recently installed statewide voter database makes it more difficult than in the past for people to vote in two places, and experts say that voting twice is not only illegal but rare these days.
“We were shocked,” said Ms. Martin of the residency challenge. “Many of these people have voted here for years.” She said that close to 280 ballots in Columbia County were challenged on the basis of residency.
The GOP’s challenges based on residency requirements that differ from judicial decisions on the subject have already had an impact on the vote count. “It has slowed down the process and kept us from doing our regular jobs,” Ms. Martin said. “These people all sign affidavits on their absentee ballots.”
Ms. Martin called the high number of challenges unprecedented. And Don Kline, the Republican election commissioner for the county, has never seen so many challenges to ballots cast by second home owners.
“Both sides are making their stand,” said Mr. Kline. “It’s a tight race. Thousands of votes cast, and they’re separated by a mere 200. Everyone is going to hang in there until the final decisions are made and rightfully so.
“The courts will make the final decision,” said Mr. Kline.
One factor that has not hindered the vote count is voting machine technology. The two commissioners agreed that the familiar, mechanical lever machines worked well during the March 31 election. Mr. Kline called them foolproof. Ms. Martin said they were completely reliable and functioned beautifully.
Asked whether the board had considered using the new electronic ballot marking voting machines for the special election, Mr. Kline said, “It would have been a nightmare. Every paper ballot might have been contested.”
Ms. Martin said that time did not permit using the new machines, and she said the cost to taxpayers of using them would have been considerable. Just licensing software for a one-candidate election would have cost up to $80,000, with ballots costing an additional $20,000, and that’s just the beginning. Prices for ongoing services from voting machine vendors will be going up soon, she said.
Both commissioners support a resolution adopted in January by the county Board of Supervisors asking the state for permission to retain the lever voting machines while augmenting them with the new, handicapped-accessible ballot marking devices that counties all over state were required to purchase last fall.
‘We were shocked…. Many of these people have voted here for years.’
Virginia Martin (D), commissioner
County Board of Elections