ALBANY–A state appellate court panel issued a brief but mixed ruling last week on whether county Republicans could pursue the case challenging absentee ballots from the November 3 election in the Town of Taghkanic, most of which were cast by second home owners.
The five judges of the state Supreme Court Appellate Division of the Third Judicial Department affirmed a decision by county Judge Jonathan Nichols allowing lawyers for the Columbia County Republican Committee and its chairman, Gregory Fingar, to challenge the 62 remaining Taghkanic absentee ballots. But the appeals judges undercut the GOP’s central argument in the case, that the voters in question should not be allowed to vote in Columbia County because they also have homes outside the county.
Immediately after the November election, the GOP sought to disqualify votes based on that argument in five towns around the county. The party lodged its case against Virginia Martin, the county Democratic commissioner of elections and the county Board of Elections, which also includes Republican Commissioner Don Kline. As hearings proceeded before Judge Nichols at the County Courthouse in Hudson, the Democrats asked the appeals court to dismiss the entire case. The ruling last Friday, December 18, was issued in response to the Democrats’ dismissal request. Judge Nichols postponed further proceedings until the appellate panel made its ruling.
Although the Democrats’ request was denied and the case may now return to Judge Nichols’ court next month, the lead attorney for the Democrats, Kathleen O’Keefe, called the appellate court’s decision “very pro-voter.” She described the ruling, which runs for little more than a single page, as a broad interpretation of how people maintaining more than one residence may choose where they vote.
“We didn’t win on the motion to dismiss,” said her co-counsel, Karen Feldman. “It’s what they said after that that was a huge victory for us; they went further than we ever thought they would have gone.”
Ms. Feldman said the decision last week made state election law “a lot more specific than it ever was before…. It will make future challenges more difficult.”
In addition to affirming the Democrats’ argument for how the voting eligibility law should apply to people who have more than one residence, the court found that the GOP had not properly challenged the absentee ballots, saying that Republicans should have challenged “the issuing of the absentee ballots and not, as here, after those ballots have been cast.”
Furthermore, said the court, the challenged voter must be made a party to the lawsuit, named on the court documents, and legally served with papers in the case. The GOP did not take these steps.
But the lead attorney for the Republicans, John Ciampoli, said this week he is ready to go on with his challenges. In a phone interview Monday, December 21, Mr. Ciampoli prefaced his remarks by saying he had not yet spoken with his clients about how they want to proceed following the appellate court ruling, but he indicated that he is ready to push full speed ahead.
“The other side misinterprets this decision. They are trying to grab a victory out of a defeat. I don’t know where the Third Department’s head was at,” said Mr. Ciampoli.
Even if his clients can’t challenge voters’ ballots registration after the election, he contends that he can still challenge veracity of their ballots. He said he remains determined to do everything he can to stop the contested Taghkanic ballots from being opened. “We have the right to challenge non-residency,” he said, adding, “We clearly have the right to challenge the statements the voters made in the ballot application.”
One of the most contentious aspects of the case so far has been the request by Mr. Ciampoli to subpoena as many as 24 different categories of documents–everything from income tax records to lists of political donations, library cards, and registrations for boats and aircraft–from each of the 62 voters whose ballots he and the GOP are challenging.
Judge Nichols declined to issue court subpoenas for these materials, after Democrats described the GOP’s demand for such a long list of documents “intrusive.” But the judge did permit Mr. Ciampoli to issue subpoenas, though legal observers say those subpoenas are more difficult to enforce.
The Republicans employed a private detective to look for information about the individuals whose votes are being challenged, and Mr. Ciampoli said he is still considering whether to issue subpoenas. But he wondered whether that’s necessary, since much of the information he is seeking is available on-line. “I am looking at evidence that goes to a bona fide, primary residence, a residence that has been reported to government agencies,” he said.
“We’re going to continue to defend peoples’ legitimate right to vote,” said county Democrat Committee Chairman Chris Nolan. “If he wants to challenge a specific voter for a specific reason, let’s look at it,” he said of Mr. Ciampoli’s position.
Mr. Nolan called the challenges a waste of time and money and estimates the court proceedings will cost county taxpayers in the neighborhood of $100,000 for the courtroom, judge, county attorney, copying, Sheriff’s Office employee time and other expenses. The figure is similar to the cost stemming from GOP challenges to votes in the special election for the 20th Congressional District, where Scott Murphy edged out his Republican challenger. But in the Murphy race, the costs were shared among the 10 counties in the district.
The cost estimate does not include Mr. Ciampoli’s salary. He said he is doing the work pro bono.
Mr. Fingar, chairman of the county Republican Committee, could not be reached for comment. He is an insurance broker, and his agency’s website says the firm specializes in seasonal and weekender homes.
In a recent statement issued to the press Mr. Fingar accused Democrats of bringing “unqualified voters” into the process, thereby “stacking the political deck.”
John Ciampoli bristles when asked about a website called countryvote.com, which supports second home owners who may want to vote outside New York City. “As a New Yorker, you don’t necessarily have to vote where you spend the work week,” says the site.
“You can choose, but it takes more than just having a deed to a piece of property,” said Mr. Ciampoli.
Court watchers may not see Mr. Ciampoli if the case continues in January. He will soon start a new job as attorney for Nassau County on Long Island, a place where his challenges to the votes of some 20,000 Democrats helped earn victory for Republicans.
“Where will Mr Ciampoli vote when he takes up his new position if his family stays in Valatie?” asked Mr. Nolan.