Schenectady ballot count creeps along

The first day of absentee ballot counting in the Schenectady mayor's race went slowly, with just 148

A woman who has voted in nearly every election for 62 years almost had her absentee ballot thrown out Wednesday as attorneys began investigating every mail-in vote in the Schenectady mayor’s race.

The first day of ballot counting went slowly, with just 148 ballots examined, because attorneys went back decades in their search for reasons to throw out votes.

One case focused on an 83-year-old woman who had never signed her voter registration paperwork.

Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy’s attorney, Kathleen O’Keefe, examined the woman’s records carefully because the voter was in a district that strongly supported mayoral candidate Roger Hull.

Without an original signature to compare to the one on the voter’s absentee ballot envelope, there was no easy way to verify the voter’s identity. But clerks at the Board of Elections pulled up the voter’s records, including scanned copies of her signature at every single election for decades. The signature deteriorated over the years, but from the progression, it was clear that the same voter signed each time.

“Good grief!” O’Keefe said when she saw the scanned records. “No judge would let me throw it out.”

She decided not to object to the ballot, even though it was likely a vote for Hull.

The ballots arrive in signed envelopes. Inside are paper ballots that look just like the ones used on Election Day. When a group of envelopes passes inspection, the ballots are removed and shuffled before they are read so that no one can easily identify which came from which envelope.

McCarthy gains

By the end of the day, Acting Mayor and Democrat Gary McCarthy had picked up six votes, putting him 83 votes ahead of Alliance Party founder Roger Hull. On Election Day, McCarthy was winning by 77 votes.

But there are still 482 ballots to examine, including those from the districts in which Hull won by huge margins.

And of the 148 ballots that were examined Wednesday, only two-thirds were actually counted. The rest were set aside because attorneys for McCarthy or Hull objected to them.

Many of the 52 ballots set aside will likely be counted at the end, when one side withdraws its objections or a judge decides which ones should be opened.

Attorneys typically withdraw their objections if it becomes clear that their candidate won’t get enough votes to win.

James Walsh, one of Hull’s attorneys, based many of his objections on slight differences in the voter’s signature on the voter registration card and the absentee ballot envelope.

“I question who actually signed that. I don’t believe it was the voter,” Walsh said repeatedly of ballots, mainly filed by Democrats.

Similarly, O’Keefe questioned a number of Republican ballots for incomplete applications.

At times, both acknowledged that they were simply trying to keep the other side’s ballots closed. In one case that had them both laughing, Walsh tried to save a ballot that was postmarked the day after the election.

Ballots must be postmarked before the election. But Walsh, who thought the ballot had a vote for Hull, argued that the postmark wasn’t quite clear enough to be sure it was mailed late.

The postmark could be read from an observer’s position several feet away. The attorneys and election commissioners laughed as they accepted the objection and set the ballot aside for further review.

Walsh wasn’t alone in his attempts. Twice, O’Keefe tried to save ballots that were in unsealed envelopes, a flaw as fatal as the late postmark. If the envelope isn’t sealed, anyone could have inserted a new ballot, and thus those ballots are almost never counted. Likewise, the Board of Elections routinely throws out late ballots.

Early bird

Among the serious objections Wednesday was one that the attorneys said they regretted.

A girl pre-registered to vote before turning 18, which is legal. But then she tried to cast a vote in the election — which was five days before her birthday.

“She gets a Good Effort for trying,” said Election Commissioner Art Brassard. “We need more young voters.”

The vote, which had been cast by affidavit because poll workers correctly did not allow the teen to vote at the machines, was set aside and not counted.

In a somewhat touchy case, a ballot from a mentally disabled voter was also set aside.

A man filed for an absentee ballot, writing that his niece was “mentally retarded” and had given him authority to vote for her with his power of attorney. He wrote that she could “understand things but not read well.”

McCarthy’s attorney, Kathleen O’Keefe, objected.

“To have your power of attorney vote for you? I’m going to object to this, unfortunately. I just don’t think that’s the proper way to vote,” she said, adding that the voter could have come to the polls and received assistance in reading the ballot.

“There’s no mention here of problems getting to the polls,” she said.

The most bizarre case thus far was of a voter who sent in an absentee ballot without putting it in its own envelope. Instead, the voter used the inner envelope, on which the board of elections had printed the voter’s address.

The U.S. Postal Service promptly delivered the ballot back to the voter, since that was the only address on the envelope. So the voter crossed out her name, wrote “do not return to sender” and drew an arrow pointing at the pre-printed words “Schenectady County Board of Elections.”

The post office delivered it to the board, but O’Keefe said she wanted to hold the ballot for a possible objection.

“It’s a very unusual situation,” she said, adding, “I give the Postal Service a lot of credit here.”

Brassard said the post office should be commended. “So neither snow nor sleet nor voter error,” he said.

He wanted to count the vote.

Good intent

“We have all the components here. We have a signed and dated envelope,” he said. “I’m not going to deny this poor lady.”

Hull’s attorney, James Walsh, agreed. “This voter made several attempts to get her vote counted and I think that’s admirable.”

It was set aside for now.

Ballot counting will continue today at 10 a.m. and will likely stretch on into the beginning of next week.

Categories: Schenectady County

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