Absentee ballots face scrutiny in Schenectady mayor’s race

Today, four attorneys will scrutinize the 529 absentee ballots cast in the Schenectady mayor’s race,

Absentee ballots seem so simple. Ask for one, fill it out, mail it in. What could go wrong?

“Anything. Literally let your imagination run wild,” Schenectady Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said.

Today, four attorneys will scrutinize the 529 absentee ballots cast in the Schenectady mayor’s race, looking for reasons to throw some of them away without ever counting them. It’s a lengthy process that may take days — and will likely end in a courtroom, where a judge will make the final decision on which ballots to count.

Overtly, the attorneys’ goal is to search for fraud, because absentee ballots can easily be filled out by someone other than the voter. In numerous cases around the country, including several notable investigations in the Capital Region, absentee ballots have been filled out in bulk by one person in order to “fix” an election. In some cases, election attorneys have uncovered the fraud or simple mistakes.

But usually, partisan politics lead Democratic attorneys to search for Republican fraud, while Republican attorneys scour the Democratic ballots for signs of foul play. They want to throw out ballots that are likely votes for the opposition.

The way the system works, they have a great deal of information with which to decide whether they want the ballot to count. They know the voter’s name, address and registered party. From that, for example, an attorney could make a wise guess as to who the voter selected for mayor. As of today, they have already had 36 hours to evaluate the data.

A voter who lives in districts that heavily supported Alliance Party candidate Roger Hull likely voted for Hull. But if the voter’s name appears on Acting Mayor and Democrat Gary McCarthy’s list of donors, the vote is probably for McCarthy.

If the address and name do not offer a clue, the party registration can be a strong indication, although Hull is believed to have received support from disaffected Democrats. That means Hull’s campaign may have to choose carefully when deciding whether to try to get a Democrat’s ballot thrown out.

It’s a process that some attorneys hate. Van Norden said it was a part of his profession that “sickened” him.

Some politicians, after watching the process, feel the same way. In the 2001 Rotterdam town supervisor race, Democrat John Paolino demanded that his attorney withdraw his objections and open all the ballots, complaining that it was wrong to disenfranchise a voter over a technicality.

But even then, the result of that election wasn’t known until after Thanksgiving. This race is expected to take just as long.

Almost anything can knock a ballot out of contention, from the wrong color ink to a crease in the corner.

“The big one is intrinsic marks,” said attorney Andrew Brick, who represented Paolino in 2001.

Although voters must sign the outside of the envelope in which they send their ballot, they must not sign the ballot itself, so the actual vote is anonymous.

The ballot cannot stand out from other ballots in any way — there can be no stains, no stray marks, not even a pinhole in the corner.

“You can take that argument to really an illogical end,” Brick said.

But what one attorney views as illogical, another attorneys says is absolutely essential.

Identifying marks were banned to stop party bosses from paying residents for their vote, said attorney John Ciampoli, who has represented many Republicans in local absentee ballot counts.

“The old trick is, you would go to your ward leader, and he’d put three pinholes in your ballot, and when they went to count the ballots they’d know to look for three pinholes and you’d get paid,” Ciampoli said.

The same principle is behind the other rules: no unusual pen colors (Brick has objected to ballots filled out in green and red ink), no pencils or magic markers, and absolutely no personal notes.

Brick saw one ballot in which the voter selected a candidate, changed her mind, crossed it out and then signed it to show she was the one who made the change. The ballot was thrown out because it was no longer anonymous.

But crossing out a choice without signing it is also a problem.

“If there’s an erasure, those are always the big issues,” Van Norden said. “Can you tell what the intent was?”

Many of the reasons for throwing out a ballot were recently eliminated by a change in absentee voting laws. The voter no longer has to say why he or she needs an absentee ballot — voters simply check a box.

Ciampoli thinks the change in absentee ballot applications will allow more fraud.

“It’s going to be guesses,” he said. “The search for fraud is largely impeded.” Previously, voters made detailed statements, which attorneys could check.

In Queens, 100 residents once sent in absentee applications on the grounds that they were all going on a day trip on Election Day. They got their ballots. But when it came time to count them, Ciampoli read their applications.

“They all said they were going on a day-trip to Hong Kong,” he said, adding sarcastically, “I go to Hong Kong for the day all the time.”

It’s easy for party workers to find out who registered during a presidential year and hasn’t voted since then, and then forge their signature on an absentee ballot request, Ciampoli said. The application even allows the ballot to be sent to an alternate address, allowing the party worker to collect them and turn them in.

That’s why the signature on the application and on the ballot envelope must match the signature on the voter registration card. But other attorneys note that people’s signatures change over the years.

“To me, that’s always problematic,” Brick said. “You could have signed that card 40 years ago. Your penmanship has changed.”

Ciampoli worries that the voter’s signature has been forged.

“It’s really that easy,” he said. “They say they were poor innocent people who just made a mistake. But there’s a system. People are going to try to cheat the system.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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