Write-in trouble

ballot VRTSome voters had a difficult time with the write-in portion of the May 21 school vote when it came to selecting candidates for the Board of Education.

“I think the write-in vote for the School Board was a disaster,” said Susan Puretz, who voted at Morse school. “It was totally unclear where the slots were for the write-in. I and many others had to peek our heads out the curtain to ask the attendant where the slots were.”

Some of the confusion can be attributed to the fact that — although it is always possible to write-in a candidate — there were far more write-in votes (well over 1,000) than in any previous school election in recent memory. Two candidates were on the ballot for three seats, so as a result, no fewer than four candidates staged write-in campaigns. Writing in a vote is simple if you know how, but trying to make heads or tails of it when the curtain is closed and there’s a line of people waiting to vote behind you can be confusing any time.

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It appears that, aside from the confusion to be expected with a mass write-in vote, the machines weren’t set up properly, which very likely affected the vote total (though to what end isn’t clear). The two balloted candidates, George Heidcamp and Angie Minew, appeared in the first two columns, and three additional columns were set up for write-in votes. According to Victor Work, the county’s Board of Elections commissioner — which does not run School Board elections but has knowledge of the voting machines — this was wrong: there should have been only one additional column, with additional write-in votes to be entered above the names of the balloted candidates (opening the write-in slot blocks off the balloted name). This would have limited the total votes that could possibly be cast per voter to three. As it was, a voter could have cast four or five.

“Normally we would control it so that the write-in slots were limited to the first three columns,” said Work.

How many people cast more than three votes, whether on purpose or by accident? We don’t know.

District clerk Sherry Francello said she didn’t think anyone voted more than three times. But asked whether it would be apparent if anyone had voted five times, said, “There’s no way to know that.” She pointed out the fact that “There was no landslide for any one person, and there was no one who got within one or two votes of each other.”

“I really believe it was a fair vote, and that those people were appointed by the voters in a fair manner,” she added.

It’s true the trustee vote wasn’t a squeaker: the results of the machine vote were: Angie Minew 985 votes, George Heidcamp 797 votes, Florence Hyatt 571 votes, Michael MacIsaac 504 votes and Robert Davies, 204 votes.

The machines the schools use for the vote are rented from the county through the town and are all identical. These are the same machines that were used for various elections throughout the county before the electric voting machines were instituted for larger elections.

Part of the confusion derived from the rather vague directions, which were distributed to voters by attendants and posted inside every machine, and which Ulster County Board of Elections Commissioner Victor Work plainly called “not illuminating,” when explaining the way the voting machines work.

Puretz said, “I tried to figure out where the slots were and read the directions over and over, and could not find the slots. I ended up separating the curtain and asking the attendant ‘where are the slots?’” The attendant, added Puretz, “was very nice about the whole situation. I wasn’t the first person to ask her.”

Some people who were too short to reach the write-in slots submitted their votes through an affidavit.

Francello attributed the confusion to the unexpectedness of the write-in element becoming a part of the voting process. “No one can remember a time in the past when there were not three candidates running for the board. This is the first time this has occurred, in particular with the numbers that were involved,” she said, citing what were well over a thousand write-in votes.

Whether any of the confusion affected the vote in any meaningful way is difficult — if not impossible — to say. In local elections, a candidate can challenge the results, but absent that the results stand. For example, in last year’s library trustee election, a machine was set up incorrectly and cost one of the candidates nearly all her votes. She didn’t challenge the vote, so nothing happened. (The candidate said she really just wanted to do what was best for the library and would volunteer instead.)

It’s possible this may be the last year for the old lever machines.

“Either next year or the following year, we will be going with the new computerized [voting machines] that the county uses,” said Francello.

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