Time to count all votes

DO YOU LIE… much? Experts say lying actually makes social interactions easier, as in: “Yes, dear, I think the tattoo on the end of your nose does kind of look like my mother…” But what about bigger fibs, the type that could affect the outcome of an election?

County Republican Party leaders say a lot of local voters–245 of them–lied on their paper ballots in this month’s election by swearing that they were eligible to vote here when they actually do not live in Columbia County. These challenges raised by the GOP have left the outcome of several close local elections in doubt.

Democrats also raised some ballot challenges, 53 in all. But the Democrats have confined their objections to ballots that appear incomplete. They don’t question anyone’s right to vote here.

Challenging residency status harks back to the tactic Republicans used in their ultimately unsuccessful attempt to block certification of Scott Murphy’s victory last spring in the special election for Congress. That race, which was decided by only a few hundred votes, remained in doubt for weeks and cost the county a bundle in legal fees without accomplishing anything but slightly increasing Mr. Murphy’s margin of victory.

State law gives parties the right to question the legitimacy of paper ballots. This isn’t a “dirty trick” and it doesn’t involve the hanging chads issue that distorted the Florida vote in the 2000 presidential election. It smacks more of political hardball designed to prove a point that most people already get: These days, people who own one home here and another in New York City or its suburbs are more likely to vote here; and when they vote they are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.

To no one’s surprise, the GOP hasn’t mounted a blanket challenge. It has focused instead on five towns where the races were close after the votes were counted from the lever machines on election night: Ancram, Austerlitz, Stuyvesant, Taghkanic and, especially, Claverack, where the initial machine count in the race for supervisor gave Democratic challenger Robin Andrews a very slim lead over incumbent Republican James Keegan.

What’s hard to understand is why the Republican leadership thinks the premise of the challenges will work any better now than it did just a few months ago in the congressional election for the 20th District. The courts have ruled that people may vote wherever they say they live regardless of how much time they spend there. Voters just can’t claim two different places as their primary address. And while some unscrupulous, careless or stupid people may have registered at multiple locations in the past, computerized registration records now make it much harder for a voter to register in multiple places.

Maybe somebody has convinced local GOP leaders that this heavy-handed approach will make second home owners shy away from registering in the county to avoid a hassle at election time. But the demographic profile of these transplants–older, wealthier and better educated than the overall population–suggests that as a group they won’t easily be deterred from exercising their right to vote where and for whom they want.

Some of the absentee and other paper ballots cast in every election do have serious flaws that make them invalid. Even the lawyers sparring over the ballots from the five towns could agree that a handful of paper ballots from this election should be tossed out because the voter neglected to complete some crucial part of the form. But those oddball ballots aren’t the ones at issue in this case. What lawyers will argue over in state court next week is the fundamental question of whether voters have the right to specify where they call home.

Even if the GOP loses most of the still-undecided local races, the party appears likely to retain control of the county Board of Supervisors. Meanwhile Republicans made unqualified gains in some parts of the county, including Kinderhook, the most populous town. And they achieved this at the same time they lost their traditional edge in voter registration to the Democrats. There is plenty of life left in the party.

Instead of stoking resentment against “city people” who vote here, Republican leaders would do better to find ways of appealing to these new local voters. But accusing them of lying about their right to vote here is the wrong way to start.

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