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Nick LaLota

Absentee ballots, early voting or voting in person — voters this year have three options to cast their ballots, though two months before election day, some of these methods have come under scrutiny.

The Suffolk County Board of Elections commissioners say they have their hands full trying to make sure everyone’s ballot counts this November, but several advocacy groups on Long Island say Suffolk, New York State and the BOE should be doing more to spread the word.

Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Suffolk BOE Republican Commissioner Nick LaLota disagreed over the locations of Suffolk’s early voting places. File photo

Experts nationwide anticipate numbers like never before will be asking for absentee ballots or doing early voting for this November election. 

The two commissioners for the Suffolk BOE, Nick LaLota, a Republican, and Anita Katz, a Democrat, were present at the Suffolk County Legislature’s Ways & Means Committee meeting Sept. 3. While there were multiple problems with the June primary, including that close to 25 percent of polling workers didn’t show up due to the pandemic, the two argued that even with limited resources, they have been making headway in increasing voting access. The number of early polling sites has been increased from 10 to 12 compared to 2019, and Katz confirmed they expect 90 to 95 percent of their poll workers will be on the job come election day Nov. 3.

Suffolk County has also issued an order saying any union employees who wish to work in polling centers for the election are allowed to do so, and will be compensated for doing so.

But the commissioners have also come under fire for where, and where they haven’t, put these 12 early voting locations. For one, Shelter Island, which had an early voting location in 2019, is not currently scheduled for one this year. 

Early Voting Issues

LaLota said the decision was based on “how do we do the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people,” arguing the numbers of voters in a place like Islip who would have a 20-to-30-minute drive to get to one of these places outstrips the small population of Shelter Island.

Those arguing for a Shelter Island location said the population there who would need to do early voting would have to take a ferry just to get to the mainland. Town of Shelter Island Supervisor Gerard Siller (D) has already sent a letter to the BOE, pleading them to reinstall the early voting place on Shelter Island. Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), who once represented Shelter Island as county legislator, also sent a letter to the BOE asking for its return as well.

“Having no on-island early voting location will unfairly disenfranchise many of the voters on Shelter Island,” Romaine said in his letter. “Voting will be particularly difficult for the elderly and the infirmed. There needs to be an early voting location on Shelter Island.”

Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Suffolk BOE Republican Commissioner Nick LaLota disagreed over the locations of Suffolk’s early voting places. Photo from Suffolk GOP website

For some officials on Long Island proper, the early voting locations still left something to be desired. Suffolk Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) was especially miffed about the decision for where the two early voting locations were placed in Brookhaven — one at Town Hall in Farmingville and the other in Mastic. She contended there was a “political reason” to put one on the South Shore in the Mastic/Shirley area, later stating in a phone interview that she was referencing U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1), who lives in Shirley and faces a challenge by Stony Brook Democrat Nancy Goroff. 

“I feel like all of northern Brookhaven got screwed by that decision,” Hahn said during the hearing.

LaLota argued choosing the Mastic destination, along with focusing on other marginalized communities, was based on the number of low-income residents in those areas. 

“Equity is the number one issue that gets put to the top, economic hardship people face — people are working two jobs, needing health care or day care, and in the grand scheme of things early voting addresses those economic hardships,” LaLota said. “I would submit to you those economic hardships are best seen in places we chose to put our early voting locations.”

Hahn shot back saying, “There are those communities all over Brookhaven.”

In a phone interview, LaLota vehemently pushed back against the characterization of the decision to put the voting location in Mastic, instead arguing Democrats are focusing on affluent areas like North Shore Brookhaven and Shelter Island. 

“I think it’s sadly ironic that a Republican commissioner is the one advocating that we bring voting to people from lesser-off communities,” he said. “I think those legislators need to be a little more introspective and be a little more receptive to the economic needs of all Suffolk County voters.”

Numerous progressive groups from all around Suffolk County signed on to a petition sent to the Suffolk BOE and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). The petition argues the location of some early polling places are “puzzling at best,” considering New York State law asks BOEs to consider population density, travel time, proximity of an early voting site to other early voting sites and whether the early voting site is near public transportation routes.

Shoshana Hershkowitz, the founder of left-leaning advocacy group Suffolk Progressives, said last year she and fellow advocacy groups lobbied Suffolk to expand its early voting options. She said at the outset last year, Suffolk’s approach was only the bare minimum with a single early voting site per town. They asked for closer to 21 early polling locations with longer hours at each. Now that Suffolk went up to 12, she said she was happy to see more available, but at the same time was disappointed at the one removed from Shelter Island.

“It’s what our budget priorities should be,” Hershkowitz said. “We should be looking to add another polling location or two — it’s a question of the political and financial will.”

In a phone interview several days after the legislative hearing, Hahn argued, considering the general geographic size of a town like Brookhaven, that it would need five early polling locations to be truly equitable, but that it could do with three. If the BOE truly needed more money for more early voting locations, Hahn argued they should have made that explicit to the Legislature before now, especially seeing the cost of one of these locations is about $50,000.

LaLota said the BOE approached Suffolk for more funding for more early voting locations last year and was rebuffed. According to budget documents, the board of elections requested $21,384,480 for 2020 but instead received $20,304,177.

Though the Republican BOE commissioner said in terms of any new early voting locations, “That ship has sailed.”

“It’s a matter of staffing,” he said. “I don’t have the employees to open up new sites. Even if somebody funded us with $100,000 tomorrow, I don’t have the employees to staff the polling place.” 

Getting the Word Out on Early Voting

With only a little over 17,000 people in 2019 taking advantage of early voting, more people are asking that officials work to get the word out.

The BOE has plans for a countywide mailing that will go to every household explaining the three ways that people will be able to vote: absentee, early or in person. That mailing should be out around mid-September, the Republican commissioner said.

Hahn was also critical over the positioning of the absentee ballot on the BOE’s website, saying one has to navigate through multiple links before coming upon the New York State’s absentee ballot form. She argued the BOE should look to put a larger, bolder text button on the BOE’s landing page that takes people directly to the absentee ballot form. 

Click on this image to see all the current early voting locations and times.

Katz, the Democratic BOE commissioner, argued they are somewhat constricted by having a page that works off Suffolk County’s template, and they’re not able to bring a set of buttons directly to the top of the page. In terms of a social media campaign, the commissioners argue they don’t have the resources to pull that off. There is currently no Facebook or Twitter page operated by the BOE itself.

The progressive groups’ petition also argues for a stepped-up communications campaign from both the BOE and other county officials. They point to Westchester County, which pledged to use the county’s communications team to publish information for people of when or how to vote.

Sue Hornik, a representative of Advocacy Group South Country Unites, one of the proponents of the petition, said she was disappointed to hear the BOE did not have any plans for instant communication with residents online. She said the whole of Suffolk government should make a concerted communications effort countywide to emphasize the availability of early voting.

“If they don’t get out the word on early voting and make people understand they have an option — and so everybody votes either absentee or on election day that would be unfortunate.”

Fellow activist Hershkowitz also advised the importance of letting people know their options.

“My hope is that people would really take advantage of it,” the Suffolk Progressives founder said. “There’s just a lot of mistrust in government, and the more transparent and accessible we can make it seem to the public, then we can perhaps regain that trust.”

The Town of Smithtown Town Hall. File photo by Phil Corso

No clear winner has emerged in the Smithtown Republican primary for town supervisor as a narrow 39-vote margin at the close of polls Sept. 12 left the outcome undecided, pending a count of absentee ballots.

Smithtown Councilman Ed Wehrheim (R) holds a razor-thin lead on incumbent town Supervisor Patrick Vecchio (R), 2,822 votes to 2,783, in the unofficial election results posted Sept. 13 by the Suffolk County Board of Elections.

“By definition, it’s too close to call,” said Nick LaLota, the Republican commissioner for the county board of elections. “The number of paper ballots outstanding exceeds the margin of victory by machine. It is literally too close to call.”

LaLota said the board of elections has received 322 absentee ballots as of Sept. 13. He said he expects the county may still receive a few dozen additional ballots over the next week. Absentee ballots must have been postmarked by Sept. 11 and received by the county by Sept. 19 to be valid.

“I am confident that we will remain victorious once they are opened,” Wehrheim said Wednesday morning.

The councilman said his campaign, along with Smithtown Republican Committee Chairman Bill Ellis, ran an extensive absentee voter outreach campaign leading up to the primary race.

“A lot is going to depend on how the absentee ballots go,” Ellis said in a phone interview. “We worked aggressively and I believe a lot of the absentees we had contact with voted for the entire team.”

LaLota said he anticipates by Sept. 25 the Suffolk County Board of Elections will have all the voting machines and paper ballots to be checked, and will have given sufficient notice to both campaigns in order to begin counting absentee votes.

The process of counting paper ballots involves opening each absentee envelope, allowing the ballot to be reviewed by a board of elections inspector and campaign observers, potentially including attorneys representing the campaigns. If there are any objections to the validity of a ballot it will be recorded.

The final outcome of the primary race may remain unknown until late September.

“With 300-plus ballots, I’d assume it’s going to take a few days,” LaLota said. “Attorneys have been known to gum up the process.”

Vecchio wrote the primary’s outcome was “still questionable” in an email statement, and that he was uncertain about the odds of being declared the Republican candidate after the absentee ballots were counted.

This is not the first time Vecchio has been challenged by his own party in a primary for town supervisor. In 2013, he faced off against former town councilman Robert Creighton (R) and prior to that, Jane Conway in 2005. In both of these primaries, Vecchio had a decisive victory at the polls.

“Against both Jane Conway and Bob Creighton, the results were substantially in Mr. Vecchio’s favor,” Ellis said. “Never has he lost on the [voting] machines to anyone.”

If Wehrheim remains victorious, he will be running for Smithtown town supervisor on the Republican, Conservative and Independent party lines in November.

Wehrheim currently has approximately $59,000 available in his war chest to spend on the general election, according to the 11-day pre-primary financial disclosure report filed with New York State Board of Elections.

“We won’t start campaigning until [the absentee ballots] are opened,” Wehrheim said. “Once they are open and the decision is finalized, then we will begin to carry on for the general election if we are the successful candidate.”

The winner of the Republican town supervisor primary will face off Nov. 7 against Democratic Party candidate William Holst and Kristen Slevin, running under her own None of the Above campaign.

After losing by two votes, newcomer is challenging validity of ballots

Village of Poquott held its election June 18. File photo

t seems the dust hasn’t settled yet after Poquott’s June 20 election for two trustee seats.

While challenger John Richardson emerged as a clear winner for one seat, it was a tight race between newcomer Debbie Stevens and incumbent Jeff Koppelson for the second spot. Stevens recently filed a lawsuit in Suffolk County Supreme Court in Riverhead to review the results.

Debbie Stevens

At the end of election night, Stevens had a slim lead over Koppelson before absentee and 10 contested votes were counted. Official results were delayed and not announced by the village until the next day, after election inspectors retained by the village and certified by the Suffolk County Board of Elections completed the count at Poquott’s Village Hall. Koppelson was declared the winner with 180 votes, while Stevens received 178.

After Stevens challenged the results, the village brought the ballots to the headquarters of the board of elections in Yaphank June 29, where the votes were hand counted by board staff members and certified by  county election commissioners Nick LaLota (R) and  Anita Katz (D).

LaLota said the village clerk handed over the ballots to their bipartisan team, and they hand counted each ballot, and their results were the same as the village’s count. However, the board of elections was not involved in any decisions involving the disputed ballots.

Stevens’ attorney George Vlachos of George C. Vlachos & Associates in Central Islip, said the village was served with a show-cause order last week to appear in court. A hearing will be held in Riverhead July 19.

Vlachos, who was originally retained by Stevens and Richardson to monitor the election, said he and his client have taken issue with the discarding of the rule that voters must be registered 10 days before an election. He said all the votes, no matter when the voter registered, were counted.

Jeff Koppelson

The attorney said he also questions whether the ballots were secured after the polls closed. He said he was on hand at Village Hall until the end of the night June 20, and there were approximately five or six ballots that were mismarked and had to be interpreted as far as what the voters’ intents were. He said he only saw one of those ballots presented to the board of elections. The lawyer said he remembers one ballot the night of June 20 where a voter chose three candidates instead of two. Vlachos said that ballot was not brought to the board.

LaLota said he had heard about the mismarked ballots before the recount, but didn’t see any major issues.

“There were up to two ballots that required a minimal review by the bipartisan team, but they easily came to a conclusion,” he said.

Koppelson declined to comment until after the matter is resolved, and Vlachos requested his client not talk directly to the press.

Vlachos added that many people from the village have offered to pay for his services to get to the bottom of the matter.

“This may just be the tip of the iceberg,” the attorney said. “I’m doing whatever investigation I need to do. I’m not sure what’s going on in Poquott, but I’m going to find out.”