Absentee balloting has been the talk of Albany politics since the city’s Democratic primary in September.
A surge of concern over rumored abuse of the absentee balloting process has boiled over. This week some 30 local officeholders held a press conference outside the New York State Board of Elections Office in downtown Albany, beseeching high-ranking officials, namely Albany County District Attorney David Soares and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, to investigate.
It all began when two incumbent Albany common councilors lost their primaries and immediately raised concerns their opponents were tampering with the absentee balloting process.
Virginia Hammer was a volunteer for Leah Golby's re-election campaign in the 10th ward. Hammer says a businessman in her neighborhood who never votes in primaries was issued an absentee ballot after being approached by a rival candidate, who then allegedly insisted being present when the man filled out the ballot form. "So he refused to fill out the ballot in front of the person, and the person, the candidate, never came back to get it. He had said 'just fill it out and I'll take it down to the Board of Elections.’"
As days passed, the Democratic primary came and went, while word spread about ever-increasing numbers of absentee ballots being filed ahead of the November 7 election. Allegations involved candidates and their supporters approaching citizens who often don't vote and encouraging them to file absentee ballots. Golby says voters were literally "being chased by candidates." "It's not fair from a fundamental fairness persepctive and respect of peoples' right to vote to chase them down the way that's being done is very troubling."
Any voter in New York can apply for an absentee ballot, but the rules are strict: you have to be out of town, physically unable to vote in person or caring for someone who is, in jail or prison for a non-felony offense, or a patient in a VA hospital.
Hammer alluded to voter intimidation that smacks of old-time machine tactics. "It's not a $5 dollar vote anymore, it's an absentee ballot, basically."
Incumbent 11th ward Councilman Judd Krasher admits he turned to absentee balloting as a means of combating low turnout after losing the primary. "Not enough people realize that an option is available to them to vote if they are unable to vote on the machine, which is an absentee ballot."
The Board of Elections is not commenting.
Krasher continued. "Not enough people know that that is an opportunity afforded to them so that can exercise the most fundamantal right to vote. So when I started knocking on doors, made it clear to folks that this was an option and if you had any reason to fall under any of those categories, that you're eligible to vote absentee."
Krasher says in the 11th ward, where more than 2,500 voters reside, 150 voters requested absentee ballots for the general election. He alleges opponents have been engaging in a systematic effort to intimidate and suppress voters who they believe aren't going to vote "their way."
11th ward primary victor Alfredo Balarin has his own take on recruitment of absentees. "Many of these voters thought they were registering to vote. They were filling out a voter registration form and they had no idea they were also filling out a absentee ballot form. That's wrong."
Krasher likened Monday's press conference at the BOE to a "dog and pony show." "I think it's difficult for any law enforcement official, whether you're talking about the local DA or the state attorney general to look at a politicl stunt and say they're going to open up some sort of an investigation when, again, at the end of the day what we're talking about are people exercising their most fundamental right as citizens, and that is to vote."
Election Day is Tuesday.