Press-Republican

November 1, 2013

Republicans weigh legal action over absentee ballots

Republicans question info on city absentee forms

By JOE LoTEMPLIO
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Republican candidates for local office have heard firsthand from voters who say they may have been misled into casting absentee ballots this election.

“I am absolutely convinced that this is happening,” Mark Dame, a Republican incumbent candidate for the Clinton County Legislature Area 8 seat, said after meeting with several voters in recent days.

“It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure it out.”

SIX REASONS ALLOWED

Republicans cite an alleged effort on behalf of the Working Families and Democratic candidates to target voters who live in public housing or are SUNY Plattsburgh students who are registered voters but have a poor participation record in recent elections.

Republicans are concerned about the possibility that the voters were encouraged to submit falsified absentee ballots.

The effort, they claim, began with volunteers providing people with absentee-ballot applications, which is perfectly legal, and having the voters sign them. The volunteers, some Republicans claim, then filled out the rest of the form and returned it to the Clinton County Board of Elections.

The applications call for the voters to indicate why they need an absentee ballot and provides six reasons to choose from.

After applications are submitted, the absentee ballots are brought to the voter by the volunteers and are signed by the voter. In some cases, based on communication with those voters, it appears that the actual absentee ballot was not filled out by the voter, just signed.

That would mean that the votes on such a ballot might have been cast by the party volunteer and not the voter themselves.

If an absentee ballot or application is filled out fraudulently, it could result in a felony charge for the voter and the volunteer who assisted them, according to Plattsburgh City Police.

VOTERS SHARE EXPERIENCE

The Press-Republican spoke with several voters who said they did not fill out the application or the absentee ballot, but just signed them.

“I signed it, sealed it, and then they took it,” voter Joanne Eagle of Plattsburgh said about her ballot.

During a recent trip to Underwood Mobile Home Park and to Plattsburgh Housing Authority units in the South End of the city, which encompasses Wards 1 and 2 and part of Area 8, Dame, accompanied by the Press-Republican, met with several voters who told them about their experiences with volunteers toting absentee-ballot applications.

Eagle, Nicole Seger, Susan Cooper, Billie Davignon and Glen Masella all confirmed that they were approached about absentee ballots.

Eagle said her application was marked that she was permanently disabled as the reason she needed an absentee ballot. Yet, she told Dame, she can walk to the polls without a problem.

Seger’s had a box marked indicating that she would be out of town. But she said she will be here and could walk to the polls nearby on South Catherine Street.

Cooper also said that she will be to be in town on Election Day, even though her box was marked that she would be absent from the county.

Masella, who walks with a cane, said that although he is disabled, he would get a ride to the polls from his sister, like he always does. He declined to fill out an absentee ballot, despite heavy pressure, he said, from the volunteer.

UNKNOWN VOLUNTEERS

All the voters questioned by Dame, except for Davignon, said they did not know the names of the volunteers who approached them with absentee applications. They did say that the volunteers told them they were representing the Working Families and Democratic parties.

Davignon said her application was brought to her by Betty Lou LaJoy, who reportedly said she was working on behalf of Mark Tiffer, a Democratic candidate for mayor of the City of Plattsburgh.

“She (LaJoy) asked me if I was working on Election Day, and I told her I was, and she told me that I could just fill out an absentee ballot and be done with it, and I wouldn’t have to go to the polls,” Davignon said.

“I had no idea it wasn’t allowed.”

Davignon said she just signed the application and did not fill it out before giving it to LaJoy. 

The application indicates that Davignon has a temporary illness or a physical disability — neither of which is true, she said when she was told about it.

“I am nowhere near disabled. I work 40 hours a week,” she said.

LaJoy returned a few days later with the actual ballot, Davignon said.

“She put it on a clipboard, said, ‘Let’s fill this out,’” Davignon said. “I told her that I preferred to fill it out myself, if I needed it, and she did not look all that happy.”

Davignon said LaJoy told her that it was too late to mail the ballot to the Board of Elections and that she would come back in an hour, pick it up and deliver it in person.

Absentee ballots are accepted as long as they are received by the Board of Elections with a postmark the day of the election or earlier.

Davignon said she will go vote at the polls on Election Day rather than use the absentee ballot.

“She really tried to get me to fill out with her right there and didn’t like it when I wouldn’t,” she said.

When a Press-Republican reporter knocked on Lajoy’s door at her home on Cornelia Street, no one answered, and there is no telephone listing for her locally. A message sent to her on Facebook went unreturned.

‘GOOD-FAITH NEED’

Tiffer said he has not seen or had any contact with Lajoy since he was interviewed by Working Families Party representatives for an endorsement in the spring.

He said he does support efforts to help people vote.

“If a person has difficulty getting to the polls, and someone can help them vote, that’s a good thing,” Tiffer said in a statement.

“Voters have the right to file absentee ballots, and we need to trust their good-faith need for those ballots. We must trust that anyone who filled out a ballot did so honestly, believing that personal circumstances necessitated that application.”

Tiffer said that if there was any misunderstanding and voters will be in town on Election Day, they should go to the polls, which would negate any absentee ballots.

“To those who feel threatened by voters’ decision to exercise their rights, I say we all have the right to vote. Not just you and your friends.”

‘DIRTY POOL’

Chad Rowe, who is a member of the Clinton County Republican Party Executive Committee, said his 77-year-old grandmother, Vina Beckwith, was targeted. 

She lives in a Plattsburgh Housing Authority unit on South Peru Street and has not voted much in recent years, her grandson said.

Rowe said a man approached her with fliers for Democratic candidates and offered her the absentee-ballot application.

“He told her that she would not have to go to the polls and could vote this way,” Rowe said.

“She hasn’t voted much, but she never voted this way (absentee ballot) before.”

Rowe said his grandmother signed the paperwork but did not fill it out.

“I think there is a lot of deception going on, and that is not right,” he said.

“I don’t care if it was Republicans, independents or whoever doing this, it is just not right, and it’s dirty pool.”

Rowe said he would drive his grandmother to the polls on Nov. 5.

CANDIDATES WEIGH IN

Dame’s opponent in the Area 8 legislature race, Democrat Robert Dolan, said he has not delivered any absentee-ballot applications, is not endorsed by the Working Families Party and had nothing to do with an effort to deliver applications.

“I expect to win on the votes cast at the ballot places,” Dolan said.

Republican candidate for Ward 1 William Ferris said he delivered 29 absentee ballots but did not try to sway people on how to fill them out.

“I just dropped them off and said see you later,” he said.

“There is a big difference between coercing someone and not.”

‘FULLY COMPLIANT’

“The Working Families Party has worked for months with a dedicated team of volunteers to elect progressive candidates in Plattsburgh,” Khan Shoieb, the Working Families Party communications director based in New York City, said in an email to the P-R. “They’re all grassroots folks who have been working in the community for years, so the notion that they are anything but expertly familiar with election law when they talk to voters is absurd.”

He said the party supports anyone’s efforts to get people to vote, as long as it is done legally.

“We’re in favor of every effort to let folks exercise their right to vote in Plattsburgh, and the party has always been explicit that voters should be fully compliant with election law,” Schoieb said.

‘NO COMPLAINTS’

Clinton County Democratic Party Chairman Martin Mannix said he supports giving people opportunities to vote, but he had nothing to do with the absentee-ballot efforts that Republicans are questioning.

“I don’t believe anybody is doing anything illegal,” he said.

“I haven’t received any complaints.”

Mannix said he doubts most of the races will be affected by the absentee ballots.

“I think this is an issue that some people jumped on to get some publicity to give their opponents a black eye,” he said.

Dame said there could be hundreds of absentee ballots distributed that may be tainted, and it could impact the election. Legal action will probably be sought, he said.

“This is not the way to win an election,” he said.

“Do it fairly and based on the merits. We will have to put our faith and trust in the hands of the informed voters of my district.” 

Email Joe LoTemplio:jlotemplio@pressrepublican.com