HUDSON—Attorneys representing Republican Assemblyman Jim Tedisco are objecting to nearly every absentee ballot mailed to Columbia County from the five boroughs or Florida. In turn, lawyers for Democrat Scott Murphy are accusing the Republicans of weeding out Jewish names and stalling where there is clear legal precedent to allow the votes.
The overall tally has moved back and forth, but the current tally has Murphy leading by 25 votes, the State Board of Elections said at 4 p.m. today.
In these circumstances, the counting of absentee ballots in the race for Kirsten Gillibrand’s old House seat is moving at a snail’s pace here in Columbia, as it is elsewhere.
The procedure goes like this: Fourteen people sit at a table in the middle of a room used normally for meetings of the county board of supervisors. They are divided by party. On one end, the board of elections staffers and commissioners sit and banter ("Kennedy—gee, I hope we let the Kennedys vote") while in the center, the lead attorneys for both sides sit, mostly in silence. Staffers assisting them, handing them research materials on each voter, are at their side.
They speak as if they are in court—each word on the record.
Representing Tedisco today was James Walsh, who seemed tense as he sipped a can of Diet Coke. He appeared this morning in Poughkeepsie for a hearing that didn't happen because the judge fell ill.
"I have reason to believe that Mr. Cohen is resident of the five boroughs of the City of New York," Walsh began a typical objection to one of the ballots being considered. He would object to the veracity of their application for a ballot, and then say their vote should be thrown out because they are not primary residents of Columbia County and therefore ineligible to vote.
Virginia Martin, the Democratic elections commissioner, would usually overrule these objections. Her Republican counterpart, Deputy Commissioner Mike Nabozny, would sustain them. The votes would therefore be laid aside.
Walsh and Thomas Garry, who was representing Democrat Scott Murphy, looked on. Gregory Fingar, the Columbia County Republican Chairman, leaned against the doorway.
"This is coming up a lot because of the close proximity to New York City—we're about 1.5 hours by train or a two-hour drive away," Fingar said. "We're no farther than the Hamptons."
Fingar, a businessman who has been serving as chairman for two months, said that the party enrollment in the county is now about even. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand maintains a home here, and Murphy won the county on election night.
The thinking behind the Republican attitude toward what Fingar called the "weekend population" is that they are mostly affluent professionals and that they lean Democratic.
Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said, "We feel very strongly that voters in the 20th Congressional District do not want this race decided by residents of New York City. Our goal, as it has been from the beginning, is to ensure that every eligible vote is counted and that the integrity of this election process is protected."
Hence the systematic Republican objections to almost anyone whose ballot was sent from the city.
The Democrats plan to argue in court, citing precedent, that the votes are valid so long as voters with multiple residences don't cast ballots in multiple places. Garry even went one step further, holding up his yellow pad and showing the names of those challenged, suggesting that Walsh was also acting with regard to ethnicity.
"Cohen, Pollack, Rosegarten, Winakor—there's a pattern: they're Democrats and they're Jewish," he said.
I ran this comment by Walsh in a hallway outside the room.
"My children are Jewish, and I'm offended at that," he said. "We have research to indicate that many of these people who reside on the Upper West Side and in Florida and other areas live there primarily, and they are continuously requesting absentee ballots in Columbia County when they are not eligible to vote there."
They finished counting the election district. There were a total of 14 ballots to be opened, and 18 that were laid aside because of objections. Of the 14, seven were for Murphy and five were for Tedisco. One was blank.
Walsh objected to one because the voter had made an X outside of the marked box.
Martin, the Democratic commissioner, said that thus far, 83 of the 233 ballots considered had been objected to by one side. She has taken to timing how long it takes for both sides to dispense with an individual ballot. The average time today was around two-and-a-half minutes. (Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Murphy campaign, said that there were 38 challenges in Columbia today by the Republicans and one by the Democrats. Walsh didn't dispute the number, saying, "This is about weeding out people who have committed voter fraud.")
The counters got to John Kennedy.
"I can't object," Garry said. "My grandmother wouldn't let me. Or, for that matter, neither would my mother or my aunts or anyone."
There was stifled laughter. Walsh looked at the ballot.
"No objection," he said.
UPDATE: The Tedisco campaign is now going after ballots cast by students.