Votes don't count
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO December 20, 2013 Supreme Court Judge Stephan Schick late Wednesday determined that 17 of the 22 challenged voters in a close Town of Cochecton race are not eligible to cast ballots locally.
“He felt every one of them had a primary residence [elsewhere],” Republican Elections Commissioner Rodney Gaebel said yesterday.
Gaebel and his Democratic counterpart, Ann Prusinski, had been split on the matter when Cochecton Town Supervisor Gary Maas (who’s also a town Republican Party committeeman and vice chairman of the county GOP Committee) challenged the votes on the grounds that the voters don’t meet the residential requirements to be eligible to vote locally.
State elections law and subsequent case law have muddied the waters surrounding residential requirements a recent case in the Town of Bethel disallowed summer bungalow residents from voting locally, while a Delaware County case permitted second-homeowners to cast ballots upstate.
“I think ultimately we wanted some guidance from the court on how to handle these issues that are going to become predominant in Sullivan County,” Prusinski explained.
She said her desire to have the votes count (versus Gaebel’s decision to reject the ballots) wasn’t based on anything political but on the serious matter of restricting people’s right to vote.
“In my mind, this was not about votes being counted,” she said. “The case law I read really watered down what a ‘principal and permitted residence’ is ... so I erred on the side of caution.”
Gaebel felt Schick’s decision was appropriate and needed.
“I think it was huge for Sullivan County because we have diverse communities,” he said, likening it to the Bethel case. “The issue is, how liberal do you get with the right to vote where you want to?”
Gaebel clarified that “nobody is arguing about someone who owns a year-round home and makes every attempt to be here as often as possible.”
Indeed, Schick ruled that five of the 22 challenged voters do have enough ties to the community local vehicle registrations, bank accounts, residences which can be inhabited in the winter, Gaebel said that their ballots should count. (Those voters live in a separate part of town than the other 17.)
Gaebel’s concern is that if that right were extended to truly seasonal residents who have primary homes elsewhere, often downstate, where they vote their huge numbers at the polls would overwhelm year-round residents’ say in their local governments.
“And how fair is that?” he wondered.
The Cochecton voters’ attorney, Kirk Orseck, feels his clients are the ones facing an unfair situation, having their right to vote restricted in a place where they’ve forged deep ties for decades supporting local organizations through donations and volunteerism, patronizing area businesses and contractors, and actively participating in the future of their town.
“These people should be lauded for their interest in the community,” Orseck affirmed.
There’s no conspiracy afoot to deprive their neighbors of that same involvement, he added.
“These folks ARE the community,” Orseck observed. “They’ve earned the right to vote.”
“Their ties to the community were pretty weak,” he said of the Lake Huntington Summer Community where the 17 voters spend the warmer months. “They don’t come out that much. People don’t know them that well.”
Most of their community involvement has been in anti-fracking and arts groups, he added. Indeed, fracking concerns spurred many of them to register to vote locally.
“‘Fracking’ was heard as much as ‘voter rights’ yesterday,” Maas said on Thursday.
He acknowledged that there appeared to be no fraud or misrepresentation on the voters’ part just what Schick called “manipulation,” due to some of them switching voting registrations between Cochecton and other locales, then back again.
Some “voted for 30 years in New Jersey,” Maas said.
Though not all 22 were denied the right to vote locally, Maas said he’s happy with the outcome.
“It’s a case that will be cited in the future, I can assure you,” Maas promised.
It may also be appealed. Orseck said his clients are considering the costs before making a decision.
In the meantime, Gaebel and Prusinski expect to count the five allowed votes in the next few days.
However, that will not be enough to change the lead incumbent Republican Cochecton Councilman Ed Grund has over Democratic challenger Paul Salzberg, the latter of whom is presumed to have been favored by the 17 disallowed voters.