Ancram voters put pencils to the metal

ANCRAM–It was the case of the missing write-in votes and Columbia County Board of Election officials came to investigate January 21.

Several voters in Ancram and Ancramdale complained to election officials that when votes cast in the November 2009 election were counted, theirs were not among them.

Democratic Election Commissioner Virginia Martin, Deputy Democratic Election Commissioner Hilary Hillman, Republican Election Commissioner Jason Nastke and Deputy Republican Election Commissioner Kathy Harter arrived at the Town Hall, Ancram voting District #1, around 10 a.m.

Ken Louck the custodian for the only voting machine in the district was there with his keys, ready to open the machine.

Mary Ann Roche, one of the voters who reported her vote missing, said when she wrote in her candidate’s name Election Day morning, she felt as if she were writing on metal, not paper, which is supposed to be inside the write-in slot.

When a second voter, Bob Mathews, complained that he could not vote because there was no paper in the slot around 10:30 a.m., the Board of Elections was called and a technician sent out to fix the problem.

Ms. Martin said that voting machine technician Peter Groll found that the paper on which write-in votes are supposed to be written, was not properly threaded through the machine’s rollers. He fixed it promptly and was back in the Board of Elections office before noon, said Ms. Harter.

Mrs. Roche maintained that the voting machine had been malfunctioning for hours, since her husband voted when the polls opened at 6 a.m. and had the same difficulty. Mrs. Roche said her husband was on his way to work at the time and did not report the problem.

Since people said they had cast write-in votes that were not recorded on the paper, Ms. Martin said she and her fellow commissioners were there to check the metal inside the write-in slot to determine whether anything was written there.  “Let’s see what we can see,” said Ms. Martin.

About 20 people were on hand last week, including Dick Wambach from Assemblyman Marc Molinaro’s office, as the paper was removed from behind the metal slot cover, levers were pulled, buttons were pushed, the inner workings of the voting machine were verbally dissected and anyone who wanted to could scrutinize the black metal slot, with a grayish-colored metal inside it.

Mr. Nastke and others examined the slot with a small flashlight.

Mrs. Roche said she had written in Cindy Shea’s name in the town clerk slot.

Election officials determined that they could indeed read that name written on the metal inside that slot. The name was written once and it did not appear that anyone had written over it to cast another write-in name.

In the supervisor slot someone thought they could make out the name “Cynthia” written with no last name. Mr. Nastke thought he saw race car driver Dale Earnhardt’s name written inside another slot.

“That’s the beauty of the mechanical system,” said Ms. Martin, “there’s evidence for us to look at.” She has actively opposed efforst by the state and federal governments to force the county to retire the old lever machines and move to an electronic system of counting votes.

In the end, officials agreed to count one write-in vote for Cindy Shea for town clerk.

In response to Mr. Mathews’ concerns that no poll official would step into the booth when he called for help casting his vote and no one offered him an emergency paper ballot when he was unable to cast the vote he wanted to, Ms. Harter said the board will see that election inspectors get a training update on voting procedures.

The group of concerned voters, observers, reporters and a photographer moved on to the Ancramdale Presbyterian Church’s Fellowship Hall. There, Cindy Shea said when she attempted write-in votes, the pencil inside the voting booth was broken. When she was finally able to complete her write-ins, she said the paper moved, as if it were not properly attached.

Former Town Councilman Bob Mayhew said he knew of three write-in votes that did not appear on the voting machine paper that was examined at the Board of Elections.

Republican Election Inspector Chair Jennifer Boice, in charge at voting District #2, said she received no complaints from any voter that they could not complete a write-in vote. She said she provided instruction to Mr. Mayhew, who asked for help.

Inspection of the metal slots in Ancramdale revealed that someone had written Ms. Shea’s name on the outside of the metal slot cover in a space for a candidate for coroner.

When the search of the machine uncovered no other unreported votes, people demanded to know where their votes had gone.

“We’ve got hard evidence and it’s just not there and there’s no other place it could be,” said Ms. Martin.

“Legally we’ve gone as far as we can go,” said Mr. Nastke, noting that the only further recourse voters have is to take the matter to the state Attorney General’s Office.

“I guess we’ll have to chalk this one up to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not,” suggested resident Arnie Anderson, who did not have a problem casting his votes, but was there to support others who did.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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