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Suffolk County Board of Elections

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.”

Mike Yacubich is hoping to run for the New York State Assembly, but is tied up fighting challenges to his petition. Photo from Yacubich's campaign website

When a Shoreham resident decided to bestow his first name upon his son 25 years ago, no one could have predicted the obstacle it would create for him running for office decades later.

Though an appeal could still be heard this week, the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division ruled in favor of Republican Mike Yacubich, chief of the Rocky Point Fire Department, who wants to represent New York’s 2nd Assembly District, in a decision levied Aug. 24.

The would-be candidate garnered enough signatures on his petition to be placed on the ballot for the Sept. 13 primary, but was challenged in court by three citizen objectors in the district. The objectors argued that since two Mike Yacubichs — father and son — have lived and are registered to vote at the same address, those who signed the petition approving the elder Yacubich as a political candidate couldn’t have distinguished between he and his son, who also goes by Mike. The argument was heard by the Republican and Democratic commissioners of the Suffolk County Board of Elections —Nick LaLota and Anita Katz, respectively — who brought the case to the Suffolk County Supreme Court. The lower court initially ruled against Yacubich, who then appealed and won to restore his name to the ballot.

“The board exceeded its authority when it invalidated the designating petition on the ground that it could not identify which registered voter was the candidate,” reads the unanimous decision reached by four appeals court judges. “There was no proof that Yacubich intended to confuse voters, or that any voters were confused as to his identity.”

Yacubich hopes to challenge incumbent Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) in the primary for the right to represent the Republican party on the general election ballot in November, barring an appeal to the Aug. 24 ruling being filed by the objectors this week.

“It’s satisfying to try to be moving forward here, but apparently it’s not meant to be until we can finalize this process,” Yacubich said. “It does make it a little bit difficult, but we’re committed to the program.”

The political hopeful said he couldn’t believe there would be any confusion as to who was running given people in the community know him as “Mike” or “Chief Mike” at the fire department in addition to his past service on the Shoreham-Wading River school district board of education. He added that his son hasn’t lived with him for more than two years.

“I think our argument has been and still is there is no confusion as to who the candidate would be,” he said. “Certainly, my son is not a chief in the fire department, an accountant, has never been a member of the school board.”

A senior official at the BOE, who asked not to be named as the issue continues to be played out in court cases, said the candidate complicated the matter by going with a shortened version of his first name — Mike instead of Michael — as well as opting not to include a middle initial on his petitions, which would have served as a delineator between the father and son.

“If you are attempting to be a state Assembly member, someone responsible for passing laws, details matter,” the official said, adding that the mix up shows a lack of experience on the part of the candidate and his campaign team.

Yacubich rejected the notion the mix up had to do with a lack of experience.

“How could they expect anybody from the public to get through the process if these are the hoops they have to jump through to get on the ballot,” he said. “To be thrown off the ballot for a technicality such as this [is] just unreasonable.”

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Supervisor Pat Vecchio tears up as he learns Town Hall will be named in his honor. File photo by Phil Corso

Smithtown Supervisor Pat Vecchio (R) conceded that his challenger Edward Wehrheim has officially defeated him in the primary for town supervisor, bringing about the end to his storied 40-year reign.

Councilman Wehrheim (R) held a razor-thin edge over Vecchio, 2,822 votes to 2,783 votes, when the polls closed Sept 12. After all 373 absentee ballots were counted by the Suffolk County Board of Elections, Wehrheim’s lead increased and he was declared the Republican Party candidate.

Ed Wehrheim. File photo by Rohma Abbas

“I always anticipated it being a very close race,” the councilman said. “Supervisor Vecchio is a 40-year incumbent. I had no illusions it would be easy to win the primary.”

The Suffolk County Board of Elections began counting the absentee votes Sept. 25 with attorneys from both candidates observing the process. Wehrheim said his counsel kept him briefed throughout the day, but a winner wasn’t clear until around five minutes to 5 p.m. That’s when he learned he was still leading by 83 votes.

“The result is very gratifying as we put in two-and-a-half months of very hard work, it’s very gratifying,” the councilman said.

Vecchio admitted despite the initial polling results that “it did, it did, it did” still come as a bit of a shock. However, the supervisor said he first congratulated Wehrheim on his victory in the hallways of Smithtown Town Hall just days after the primary.

“I was resigned to the fact that I had lost on the night of the election,” he said.

Vecchio is the current longest-serving town supervisor in New York, first elected to the position in 1977. To his credit, his years in office have been known as fiscally conservative ones for Smithtown, leading the town to have a Triple AAA bond rating. It’s been predicted there will be no tax increase for residents in 2018.

Vecchio said that he’s no stranger to a close ballot count. He recalled that in his first general election he  won by a slim 67-vote margin.

“All good things come to an end. For now, I’m going to continue coming to work every day like I’ve done for 40 years.”

— Pat Vecchio

He’s faced numerous primary challenges from members of his own party before. In 2013, he faced off against former town Councilman Robert Creighton and prior to that, Jane Conway in 2005. The key difference was in both of these primaries, Vecchio had  decisive victories at the polls.

Vecchio said that despite facing the reality of his loss, he hasn’t given much thought to what he will do after office. 

“All good things come to an end,” he said. “For now, I’m going to continue coming to work every day like I’ve done for 40 years.” 

Wehrheim will face off against the Democratic candidate William Holst and independent Kristen Slevin in the general election. Wehrheim said he plans to take a few days to “catch his breath” before sitting down to plan his campaign strategy for the next five weeks.

“I appreciate the confidence of the Republican voters in Smithtown to give me the opportunity to run in the general election,” Wehrheim said. “If we are successful, I’ll be able to roll up my sleeves and get to work.”

Wehrheim will share the party line with incumbents Councilman Thomas McCarthy and Councilwoman Lynne Nowick this November. McCarthy and Nowick, while not endorsed by the Smithtown Republican Committee, kept their lead on challengers Bob Doyle and Tom Lohman despite the absentee ballots.

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.”

Election signatures deemed invalid by court, BOE

Town of Huntington will host a Organ Donor Enrollment Day Oct. 10. File photo by Rohma Abbas

A primary election for the Democratic Party line in the race for the Huntington Town Board has been squashed.

The campaigns of former Highway Superintendent William Naughton and Huntington Station resident Andrew Merola — who were vying for the line against incumbent Councilwoman Susan Berland and running mate Keith Barrett and hoping to win in a primary election — came to a halt earlier this week after a number of signatures on their candidate designating petitions were rendered invalid.

Naughton lost a challenge waged by two committee Democrats in state Supreme Court and the Suffolk County Board of Elections ruled a number of signatures on Merola’s petition invalid.

Signatures may be deemed insufficient for several reasons, including whether or not a person is a registered Democrat, or registered to vote and more. Candidates need 1,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot, and those petitions were due July 9.

Merola submitted 1,097 signatures, Naughton garnered 1,552, Berland and Barrett, who were on the same petition, collected and submitted 2,600 signatures, according to Anita Katz, the Democratic commissioner at the BOE.

William Naughton. File photo
William Naughton. File photo
Andrew Merola. Photo from Andrew Merola
Andrew Merola. Photo from Andrew Merola

Several Democrats filed objections to Naughton’s and Merola’s. The BOE reviewed Merola’s petition and ruled that a swath of signatures did not count, bringing his total count below 1,000. In Naughton’s case, two Democrats, Sherry Ann Pavone, a Northport resident, and Anne Berger, of Huntington, filed a lawsuit challenging the petition’s signatures under election law. Sandy Berland, Councilwoman Berland’s husband, represented the two pro bono, he said.

After the judge reduced Naughton’s signature count below 1,000, the former highway superintendent bowed out, Sandy Berland said.

“He made the judgment to end at that point,” the attorney said. “And of course we couldn’t end unless he agreed not to take an appeal.”

Naughton’s campaign declined to comment on Friday.

Merola didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on Friday, but he took to Facebook to air his frustrations.

“Unfortunately, both myself and Bill Naughton have been forced off the ballot, thanks to Susan Berland and her husband deciding that they know better then the citizens of the Town of Huntington,” he wrote. “Instead of giving the voters a choice on who they’d like to represent their interests, Susan Berland has made that decision for you. We should have had four choices on [Sept. 10], and now, we won’t even have a vote.”

Sandy Berland, however, pointed out that petitions require valid signatures on them that abide by election law. He noted there’s a legal process in place to pursue challenges to those signatures.

In an interview this week, Susan Berland said she was pleased with the results.

“Keith Barrett and I are the designated candidates from the Democratic party,” she said. “We went through the process. We screened. We appealed to the Democratic membership and we got the nomination. I am proud to continue to represent the Democrats, and thankful that the Democratic party fended off any challenges to their designations.”