Group questions voting 'bloc'
By Dan Hust
KAUNEONGA LAKE A recent meeting in Kauneonga Lake has set the stage for what could eventually define the interpretation of election law in New York State.
But the organizing group behind Voters for Election Integrity (VEI) Dave Sager, Ira Cohen, Mike McGuire, Gail Rubenfeld and Jonathan Hyman will be satisfied just if the Town of Bethel’s voters’ roll consists solely of legitimate residents.
Because they’re not so sure that’s the case right now.
Earlier this year, a group apparently consisting of Hasidic residents who summer in the White Lake area formed the Community Council of Bethel, reportedly to have more of a say in local politics, especially in the wake of a controversial move by town leaders to halt occupation and use of a newly constructed synagogue on Schultz Road.
No voting coordination
Representatives of the groups involved in the Community Council have been impossible to identify, however, and its building on Route 55 is reportedly empty now that the summer is past.
Henri Shawn, the attorney for the synagogue’s owner, United Talmudical Academy (UTA), has denied that his client is coordinating the voter drive, though nearly 50 people listing the UTA bungalow colony’s White Lake address registered to vote in Bethel between May and September.
A few dozen other new voters in the township also listed their addresses as unwinterized bungalow colonies.
And therein lies the problem, said VEI’s leadership.
“Even though the law recognizes that a person may have more than one residence for voting purposes, it still requires that a residence for voting purposes will be considered valid only if the voter has legitimate, significant and continuing attachments to that residence,” McGuire, a Ferndale attorney, stated at a recent VEI info meeting that attracted around 100 area residents. “We simply do not believe that people who spend from one to eight weeks during the summer in a bungalow colony, a bungalow colony which is closed and unoccupied throughout the rest of the year, are truly residents of Bethel as the election law defines it. If a person’s bona fide residence is elsewhere, that is where that person should vote.”
‘Right to challenge’
Court cases have not always been quite as clear, with a Delaware County judge recently ruling that weekenders from New York City could indeed vote in their upstate Bovina elections.
Noting that those people had a plethora of demonstrable attachments to their community, organizers of VEI say state election law allows officials to go to great lengths to verify proper residency it’s just rarely carried out.
“The state has gotten sloppy,” observed Cohen, who serves as the elected Sullivan County Treasurer.
“And it is our right… to challenge registrations,” added Sager, Bethel’s county legislator, who feels the Community Council’s intent is “to bully and intimidate and threaten” local elected officials.
“We have a duty to question,” added Cohen, who termed the Community Council’s efforts as a “knee-jerk reaction” to the synagogue controversy.
And so VEI is prepared to take the Sullivan County Board of Elections to court not because of a problem with Commissioners Faith Kaplan and Rodney Gaebel or their staff, but because VEI feels the board can and should do more to ensure residency.
They’re hoping it won’t come to litigation, and further meetings are planned between VEI and Board of Elections officials.
“I believe they are struggling with this and are trying to do the right thing,” proffered Cohen.
Hiring a lawyer
In the meantime, a lawyer specializing in election law, James Walsh of Schenectady, has already been hired, and VEI is planning a fundraiser this Sunday from 1-3 p.m. to help defray that expense.
For $20 per person, attendees will enjoy food and drink at Friends Restaurant in Smallwood.
The money raised will be used ultimately to legally challenge specific registrations, which will require an investigation by the Sheriff’s Office into whether or not dozens, potentially hundreds, of new Bethel voters have the state-required “legitimate, significant and continuing attachment” to the area.
Pointing out the official support of Bethel’s Democratic, Conservative and Republican parties, VEI organizers are quick to dismiss any allegations of anti-Semitism.
“I don’t care what they are,” said Cohen, himself Jewish. “When a group of people, any people, continue… giving the perception of trying to get around the law ... that’s what annoys people in Sullivan County.
“... The law should be complied with equally and applied equally.”
However, they have yet to reach out to those involved in the Community Council partly because it’s not easy to figure out who is involved.
Meanwhile, VEI is working hard to garner public support.
“I have no problem having an honest and fair discussion about it,” remarked Sager. “… I hope it just raises awareness and dialogue.”
For more information, email VotersforElectionIntegrity@gmail.com. For those unable to attend the fundraiser but interested in donating, checks can be sent to Voters for Election Integrity, PO Box 306, Kauneonga Lake, NY 12749.