Mike Kavanagh could become Ulster County’s ranking law enforcement official on Jan. 1. But, barring an unprecedented failure in the county’s elections infrastructure, his tenure will be very short.
Kavanagh, a Republican, currently serves as chief assistant district attorney under outgoing DA Holly Carnright. On Tuesday, December 17, Kavanagh said that he would not waive his right to a full recount of every ballot, and would let the process play out. Should the recount of the 53,626 ballots stretch on into the new year, Kavanagh, as chief assistant, would begin 2020 as acting district attorney.
Kavanagh faced veteran litigation attorney Dave Clegg, a Democrat, in the hotly contested race for the DA’s post. Election Night ended with Kavanagh ahead by three votes out of more than 50,000 cast, setting up a weeks-long process of counting absentee and affidavit ballots, and awaiting a judge’s ruling on hundreds of challenged votes.
That process ended on Dec. 11 with Clegg up by 77 votes, later bumped up to 79 when two more challenged-in-court ballots were accepted and added to the total this week.
But now certification of that result will have to wait until county Board of Elections officials complete the painstaking manual recount, which is mandated under a 2011 county law that calls for a recount in any election where the margin of victory is less than two-tenths of 1 percent. Kavanagh could have allowed the county to avoid the recount by conceding the election, but he opted instead for the procedure.
“With an office this important and a race this close, it is imperative that every vote is accounted for an accurately recorded,” Kavanagh wrote in a press release. “This law was enacted in contemplation of this very scenario, and I have an obligation to the thousands of voters who supported me to permit the legal process to play out, and to ensure that the proper candidate is ultimately declared the winner.”
Democratic Elections Commissioner Ashley Dittus said this week she had reached an agreement with her Republican counterpart, Tom Turco, to begin the count. Two teams — each team consisting of one Democrat and one Republican — will start the process. By Thursday, that number would increase to four teams. On Dec. 24, six teams will work from 9 a.m. to noon before taking a break for Christmas. The count will resume with four teams on Dec. 26.
Dittus said she was continuing to negotiate with Turco to add part-time staff to speed up the count. Dittus said that recount could take anywhere from two weeks to a month, depending on how much time and staff are devoted to it. Dittus added that the cost of the recount is expected to run between $16,000 and $20,000.
The recount raises the prospect that Kavanagh could begin 2020 as acting district attorney. In an email this week expressing frustration with the anticipated pace of the recount, Dittus suggested that Republican officials would drag their feet in order to give Kavanagh a least a week or two at the helm.
“Now that the Republican candidate stands to financially benefit from dragging this on as long as usually possible, I am not optimistic that we will get a scenario where we both agree on an expeditious recount,” Dittus wrote.
Other Democrats have excoriated Kavanagh for not waiving the recount, calling the process a waste of taxpayer dollars and a subversion of the Democratic process. Dittus pointed out that a routine recount of three percent of the ballots cast in November’s election, chosen at random, did not find a single error. Bennet Ratcliff, chairman of the Woodstock Democratic Committee weighed in with an email this week suggesting that if Kavanagh were to assume the acting DA’s post on Jan. 1, it would amount to an abuse of the system.
“Ulster County voters already rejected Mike Kavanagh,” wrote Ratcliff. “But now he’s grabbing for the office and seeking to pocket tax dollars too.”
eanwhile, Ulster County Republican Chairman Roger Rascoe accused Dittus of violating the code of conduct for elections officials and acting as a “mudslinger” for county Democratic Chairman Frank Cardinale. In a press release, Rascoe pointed to comments made by Dittus in local media to the effect that the recount was not necessary as evidence of bias. Rascoe called on Dittus to recuse herself from the remainder of the recount process.
“Her role of being a spokeswoman for the Democrat Party is in clear conflict with the Code of Conduct posted in the office and her actions are unethical,” wrote Rascoe. “Mike Kavanagh cannot get a fair and impartial recount of the ballots in this election with Ashley Dittus involved in any manner.” ++