UTICA — Poll workers at last fall’s elections in at least two locations in Oneida County failed to stop people whose eligibility to vote was in question from casting ballots, a candidate for county executive and a small group of poll watchers have charged.
While the complaint comes in the midst of a contentious pre-primary campaign season, it may also bring adjustments in how provisional ballots are counted in time for an expected increase in how many are cast thanks to recent changes in registration procedures in New York.
David Gordon, the former county legislator who ran for county clerk last year and is seeking the Republican nomination this year for county executive, called a press conference Monday morning in Utica to draw attention to the issue involving provisional ballots. Voters are given them when for some reason their registration can’t be verified at a polling place on Election Day, such as they’ve recently moved.
The ballots are supposed to be returned to poll workers and sealed in an envelope. Elections officials later seek to confirm whether the voter was properly registered and, if so, their votes are counted.
But Gordon and Utica conservative activist Jim Zecca, using freedom-of-information procedures, obtained 14 provisional envelopes from November that were empty and marked as having had the ballot put into the counting machine. They also played recordings of phone interviews with voters who described provisional ballots of themselves or family members put through counting machines at poll sites.
Gordon and Zecca, joined by Lou Poccia of Utica, who was a poll watcher last fall, did not say any races last year were changed by wrongly cast provisional ballots, including Gordon’s unsuccessful bid for Oneida County clerk. They said they don’t know how many provisional ballots were cast but insisted that any is too many and that the county administration is negligent for not fixing the procedure.
“How many, again, also discarded the envelope into the trash basket and put the ballot into the machine? That number we don’t know,” Gordon said.
“When a person isn’t eligble to vote and they cast a ballot in the machine, whether they’ve done so on purpose or by mistake, it’s fraud,” Gordon said. “And fraud is not quantified by a little or a lot. Fraud is fraud, and fraud is illegal.”
Assistant County Attorney Robert Pronteau, who represents the Board of Elections in legal issues, acknowledged that 14 provisional-ballot envelopes were returned without ballots that were cast, and that the county will look into changing procedures.
Special provosional ballots could be printed, but at 50 to 100 for each election district, could be costly, he said.
“Fraud requires intent. There’s no intent here,” Pronteau said. “There’s no action on the part of the Board of Elections at all. It was a mistake by the voters not following the instructions they’ve been given.”
Gordon and Zecca also had issues with how absentee ballots were handled. When absentee ballots were examined after Election Day, elections officials did not keep the envelopes in which they were mailed and postmarked, they said. Absentee ballots are to be mailed to local election boards by the day before Election Day.
“Elections are poiltical. Transparency is the only tool that we have for ensuring that the process is true and fair,” Gordon said. “We want the orginal postmarked envelope this year and for future elections to remain intact to ensure toatal transparency.”
Pronteau, however, said the postmarked outer envelopes are discarded only after their postmarks are verified during absentee canvassing. The inner envelope containing the ballot and the voter’s identifying information is immediately time- and date-stamped and if it doesn’t pass the postmark check, the ballot is put aside, he said.
While their immediate complaint is local, Gordon and Zecca said the problem isn’t limited to Oneida County. “It’s statewide,” Zecca said. However, some counties are taking steps to guard against provisional ballots being counted before they’re confirmed, including Madison County.
Madison County Democratic Elections Commissioner Laura Costello confirmed later Monday to the Daily Sentinel that the county will have provisional ballots will go to a special table at polling places, and special provisional ballots will be printed that will be rejected by ballot-counting machines.
Election officials in Madison County expect an increase in provisional ballots this year, largely because voters’ registrations will automatically follow them if they move within New York, Costello said. That was among several changes in election procedures adopted into law this year, along with 10 days of early voting ahead of Election Day.
Gordon’s complaints, though, also come in the midst of a primary campaign. Last week was the deadline for filing petitions among registered Oneida County Republicans to force a primary against incumbent Anthony Picente Jr., who was nominated by the county’s party committee earlier in the year. Gordon said he filed 1,069 signatures but needed only 750. A position on a primary ballot, however, is not guaranteed until the minimum number of party registrants’ signatures is certified by local elections officials, and opponents typically offer challenges to one another’s petitions.
Gordon objected to a sister of Picente serving on the county Board of Elections, and to Republican Elections Commissioner Rose Marie Grimaldi also serving on the county Republican Committee.
“How can I run a successful campaign if the board of elections is already against my campaign? How can I run for office and actually win a seat here in Oneida County if the Board of Elections isn’t doing their job?”
Grimaldi declined to comment Monday.
An inquiry to Picente’s campaign received no response as of Tuesday morning.
Before Gordon began speaking to reporters Monday at the county-owned Union Station in Utica, he was approached by two uniformed Oneida County sheriff’s deputies, who informed him that solicitation in the facility may require a permit. Gordon went ahead while the deputies stood by.
He left afterward without any further incident.