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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 25, 2007

Cast your own vote

Illustration by Forest Byrd.

"Your every voter, as surely as your chief magistrate, exercises a public trust."

— Grover Cleveland’s inaugural address, 1885

Absentee ballots are meant for voters who can’t get to the polls. Perhaps they are out of town on business or vacation. Perhaps they are ill or confined to a nursing home. These are all valid reasons to mail in a paper ballot.

And, we can see why the law allows for someone else to deliver a voter’s ballot. Perhaps the voter is unable, too ill or disabled, to get to a mailbox or deliver the ballot in person to the county board of elections. And, we can also envision an instance where a voter may be unable to fill out a ballot; if a voter is of sound mind but infirm hand, a proxy should be allowed to fill out the ballot as directed.

But these were not the circumstances in the Conservative Party primary in Rensselaerville, as a half-dozen outraged letter writers have made clear in recent weeks. Our reporter, Tyler Schuling, was on hand when the primary votes were counted at the Albany County Board of Elections on Sept. 18, and he has followed the story since.

Steven Wood, who is enrolled as a Conservative, and is running for assessor against the Democratic incumbent, Jeff Pine, lost the primary to Pine, by a vote of 12 to 8. What rankles Wood is that, of the 33 enrolled Conservatives in Rennsselaerville, only 10 went to the polls to vote on primary day. Thirteen used absentee ballots, their reasons for being out of town about equally divided between vacation and work.

Couriers for the absentee ballots, except for one, were all members of the G. Jon Chase family; a Democrat, Chase is the town’s highway superintendent. The other one was handled by a Democratic councilwoman, Sherri Pine, the wife of Wood’s opponent.

The most outrageous part, though, is those observing the ballot count noted that handwriting was the same on many of the ballots, meaning they had not been filled out by the absent voters, but rather by the courier.

Whether ballots are filled out by the same person is irrelevant, said Matthew Clyne, the Democratic commissioner for the county’s board of elections. He said the commissioners — one Republican and one Democrat — determine whether the ballots are filled out correctly, meaning that they have no extraneous markings and that the vote is cast in the appropriate column.

Clyne said absentee applications and ballots are often filled out by "political operatives" to expedite the process. Four out of five times, he said, they are filled out by political operatives "just to get things going," and then they are signed by the voter.

"There’s nothing sinister about it," said Clyne of one person filling out multiple ballots. "Most political operatives do it. I’ve done it many times myself."

Clyne also called the absentee ballot "a strange form," indicating voters may need help filling it out.

The form looks straightforward to us. The political parties are listed down the left side of the paper, much as they are on the lever-style voting machines still used in New York State, and the offices are listed across the top of the page. The names of the candidates, with party, are marked in the grid beneath. The voter fills in the oval next to the name of the candidate of choice.

If the ballots are confusing, they should be changed. Although New York State is woefully behind in meeting the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act, some time in the not-too-distant future, all New Yorkers will have to cope with new ballots. It is essential to make them simple and understandable.

But that’s not the real problem here. The problem is a convoluted and complex state Election Law that allows gaping loopholes. New York has the most cumbersome election law of any of the 50 states. Much of it is written to serve the people in power, not the voters. Much of it is archaic and unfair.

Four years ago— the year Knox Democrats didn’t appear on the ballot because their paperwork was late — the Democratic highway superintendent lost his job even though he received a vast majority of the votes. That’s because his write-in votes — 267 of them — didn’t count since his name was already on the machine on the Conservative Party line. Unbeknownst to the Knox Democrats who launched a write-in campaign, a clause in the voluminous Election Law excludes write-in votes for a candidate with another party line.

Until New Yorkers demand a change in their Election Law, abuses will continue. Janet Haseley, who spends her summers in Rensselaerville, wrote us this week to explain how her home state of North Carolina handles absentee ballots. The ballot is placed in an envelope, signed by the voter, with the signature notarized. Writing of her amazement with the New York system, Haseley said, "I thought that only people who are handicapped were allowed to have other persons help them mark ballots""

Indeed, that’s the way it should be. The notion that "political operatives" routinely fill in four out of five ballots "just to get things going" is reprehensible.

Although there will not be any changes in the Election Law before Nov. 6, each of us, as individual voters, can make a difference by going to the polls to vote, if we are able, and, if not, by casting our absentee votes ourselves.

One person, one vote is the bedrock on which our democracy was built. We’ve always felt a thrill as we pulled the handle that closed the curtain of the voting booth behind us. We are alone then in a space that feels sacred. Before us is a choice of candidates. No one need know how we vote. Our conscience is our guide. We would be foolhardy to give up this hard-won privilege.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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