Above: Two questionable and likely fraudulant Kiryas Joel voting signatures. Please click to enlarge.
Chris McKenna of the Times Herald-Record reports:
The stakes were high last November when a team of poll watchers dispatched by the United Monroe citizens group ventured into a banquet hall and medical building where more than 6,000 Kiryas Joel voters would cast ballots.
United Monroe had been campaigning hard for a slate of Town Board candidates running on its ballot line, hoping to wrest control of a deeply unpopular board by outvoting the Hasidic community’s powerful voting blocs. Kiryas Joel’s leaders, meanwhile, had every reason to elect board allies and thwart a nemesis of theirs running in another important contest that day: the race for Orange County executive.
What unfolded in the two polling stations that day sparked new interest in election oversight and suspected voter fraud in Kiryas Joel, longstanding issues that had been out of the headlines and scrutiny of authorities for more than a decade. That rekindled controversy continued through a primary election and lawsuit last month, and soon could extend into another voting showdown looming for the Nov. 4 general election.
The Times Herald-Record documented voter fraud in Kiryas Joel twice in the 1990s and once in 2001, triggering investigations — and, in one case, a stern grand-jury report — but no prosecutions. Village officials responded each time by saying that the number of proven improprieties was paltry and that they didn’t condone them.
United Monroe’s leaders knew about the past problems when preparing for last year's town elections, and wanted its poll watchers in Kiryas Joel to watch voters sign in and challenge those whose signatures looked nothing like the originals — known as exemplars — in the poll books, generally reproduced from voters’ registration cards.
It proved to be a contentious day in Kiryas Joel.
In a series of sworn statements later delivered to authorities, United Monroe members described tense encounters with another group of poll watchers who officially represented different parties but were seemingly aligned against them. They say their adversaries berated and harassed them for questioning mismatched signatures, accusing them of intimidating or disenfranchising voters.
Next came a conflict in August over requests to allow people other than Kiryas Joel residents to work in the village as election inspectors, the paid workers who oversee the poll books, distribute ballots and rule on voter challenges. The Board of Elections initially granted those requests for the Sept. 9 primary but then rescinded them. The spurned inspectors immediately filed a discrimination lawsuit, which ended on an ambiguous note last week as another heated election approaches.
Watching the watchers
The stakes last November were even higher than United Monroe leaders could have realized at the time. As public documents have since revealed, Kiryas Joel officials knew then that a group of Hasidic property owners would soon petition the Town Board to shift 507 acres of Monroe into Kiryas Joel – a long-anticipated move to expand the densely populated community. That annexation request landed in the Monroe clerk’s office on Dec. 27, days before Kiryas Joel’s endorsed candidate, Harley Doles, took office as town supervisor.
Emily Convers, who led United Monroe’s ticket as its supervisor candidate and is now the group’s chairwoman, recalls she and other leaders instructing their poll watchers to be sparing in their voter challenges — questioning only signatures that looked completely different — and to avoid any confrontations.
“We instructed all of our watchers: Be conservative, be respectful, be Gandhi,” she said. "We were extremely cautious."
The rival poll watchers who United Monroe’s volunteers say confronted them during the election included two women whose poll-watcher certificates show that Doles enlisted them.
Several affidavits watchers gave authorities this spring also described encounters with Langdon Chapman, an attorney and longtime aide to state Sen. John Bonacic, a Mount Hope Republican. United Monroe members knew Chapman for his role as attorney for the Monroe Town Board, whose members they were attempting to unseat. But he had another reason to watch the watchers in Kiryas Joel: He was involved with Steve Neuhaus’ campaign for county executive. Neuhaus, the Republican candidate, had been endorsed by both Kiryas Joel voting blocs over Democrat Roxanne Donnery – a longtime foe of the village leaders – and could expect a flood of votes there that day.
Officially, Chapman was in Kiryas Joel on behalf of the Orange County Republican Committee, whose chairman at the time, Robert Krahulik, had signed his poll-watcher certificate.
“Way to go, United Monroe, disenfranchising the voters,” poll watcher Greg Gilligan recalled Chapman calling out. In another affidavit, poll watcher Steve Pavia said Chapman accused him of “a pattern of hate” after he challenged two consecutive voters. A third poll watcher, Dale Lander, said that Chapman repeatedly yelled at her after she asked him who he was and why he was there, shouting at such close range at one point that “his spit was hitting my face.”
Chapman, who was appointed Orange County attorney after Neuhaus won the election, denies accusing poll watchers of disenfranchising voters or engaging in a “pattern of hate.” He recalls “one person who was very aggressive with me at one point,” but disputes Lander’s description of their encounter.
In a phone interview and an email message, Chapman said he spent four to five hours at the two polling stations in Kiryas Joel, the only place in the county where he said he observed voting that day. He said he saw no problems with the voter challenges he witnessed other than when poll watchers didn’t specify why they were objecting.
“That would cause a delay in voting as it appeared the inspectors were trying to understand the basis of the challenge so they could make a decision,” Chapman wrote. “Those challenges, without any reason initially given, created unnecessary tension between voters, election officials, and poll watchers.”
He added: “If you are going to challenge someone’s right to vote, it’s helpful to be able to explain why, so the inspectors can make a prompt decision without slowing down other voters.”
The United Monroe affidavits recount a few episodes that fed poll watchers’ suspicions of fraud. Gilligan, for instance, said the Kiryas Joel residents working as inspectors at his voting table once dismissed a signature discrepancy by saying the original was written 20 years ago. But the woman who had just signed the poll book then said she was only 24 year old, and left without further attempting to vote.
In another incident, poll watcher Frank Borowski said he questioned a voter he had seen at the polling station earlier that morning — and easily recognized because he had something stuck in his beard — and was told by an inspector that the man hadn’t voted already. In the ensuing commotion, the man stormed out without voting.
Poll watchers say it became nearly impossible to watch and compare signatures as evening fell and growing crowds of voters streamed into the banquet hall that serves as Kiryas Joel’s main polling station.
“The pace quickened,” Gilligan recalled in his sworn statement. “During this time, the election inspectors continued to hand the voters their ballots as soon as they signed their names but before I had a chance to verify the signatures.”
By then, he said, the room was “full of unsupervised voters” and “very chaotic,” with voters looking over each others’ shoulders and exchanging sample ballots with the names of endorsed candidates highlighted.
The sample ballots are a staple of village elections, created by each of Kiryas Joel’s two political parties and handed to voters as they head to the polls to ensure a solid voting bloc. Election commissioners say voters are allowed to carry such materials inside for their own guidance, but cannot leave or exchange them in voting areas, as they reportedly did last year.
The election went Kiryas Joel’s way.
Doles and the other Monroe candidates supported by village leaders crushed the United Monroe contenders by 800-vote margins, despite massive turnout for the United Monroe slate everywhere outside of Kiryas Joel. And Neuhaus handily beat Donnery in the county executive race, with the votes going 6,469-20 in his favor in Kiryas Joel -- a typically lopsided outcome for elections there.
For all the controversy, the actual number of voters United Monroe’s poll watchers formally challenged was modest — 25, out of nearly 6,700 votes cast in Kiryas Joel over 15 hours. The county’s election commissioners, Sue Bahren and David Green, say they know of no challenged voters who were stopped from casting ballots.
Sheriff’s deputies later investigated the 25 challenges, concluded that 22 were unfounded and referred three others to the District Attorney’s Office for further investigation, the election commissioners said.
Several weeks after the election, United Monroe members pored over Kiryas Joel’s poll books, comparing exemplars to Election Day signatures and marking down those that didn’t match. They came up with 838. This spring, they sent a spreadsheet with those voters’ names, as well as affidavits from seven poll watchers, to four agencies: the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, the state Board of Elections, the FBI and the state Moreland Commission, which is now defunct.
No actions have resulted from that. In an interview this month, District Attorney David Hoovler said there was “insufficient evidence” of a crime in United Monroe’s materials, and no way of identifying someone who may have voted in another voter’s name — if that in fact happened in some cases.
“The fact that two signatures are irregular — it’s problematic,” Hoovler said. But investigating further is futile, he said, because “we don’t know who signed the first or the second.”
Hoovler, a Republican who ran on a ticket with Neuhaus last year and also had the support of both Kiryas Joel blocs, said the controversy has spurred one new policy for his office: two prosecutors will be made available on election days to help County Attorney Langdon Chapman’s office with any polling-station problems throughout the county.
In New York, voters are essentially on the honor system when they register and again when they sign in to vote. Nationally, Republicans and Democrats have been fighting in statehouses and the courts over a wave of recent laws states have enacted to require voters to present photo identification when they show up at the polls. No such debate is taking place in Albany, although a photo ID bill co-sponsored by state Sen. William Larkin Jr. - a Republican whose district includes Monroe - has gathered dust in the Senate for the last few years.
The possibility of voting in someone else’s place, or voter impersonation, recalls two Kiryas Joel voting investigations by the Times Herald-Record in the 1990s.
In 1996, the Record showed that on 120 occasions in preceding years, votes were cast in two places on the same date under the names of former Kiryas Joel yeshiva students who had registered to vote in Brooklyn but remained on the voting rolls in Orange County. A year later, the newspaper reported 47 more instances. Whether a single voter had illegally cast votes in both places or was impersonated in one was unclear.
In many cases, the signatures in Kiryas Joel’s poll books looked different than the ones on record for those voters, suggesting that someone in Kiryas Joel had exploited an obsolete voting slot. Indeed, three of the men who had ostensibly voted in two places on the same day told the Record that they lived in Brooklyn and didn’t cast the recent votes made in their names in Kiryas Joel, where they had attended school years earlier.
A sampling of Kiryas Joel’s poll books by the Times Herald-Record after the November 2013 election found numerous mismatched signatures. None of the voters contacted by a reporter recently about the signature discrepancies returned phone messages. One, reached on his cell phone, hung up.
Hoping to strengthen their ability to monitor voting, a group of Monroe residents asked the county Board of Elections this year to assign them to work in Kiryas Joel as election inspectors, starting with the Sept. 9 primaries. On the ballot that day were contests for the vacant Assembly seat that represents Monroe — a race colored by fervent opposition to the annexation proposal property owners submitted in December. United Monroe was backing one of the four Republican contenders, Dan Castricone, who had taken a strong stance against an expansion of Kiryas Joel.
The county’s Republican election commissioner, David Green, declined to appoint inspectors from outside Kiryas Joel, while his Democratic counterpart, Sue Bahren, agreed to try to include one nonresident among the four inspectors at each voting table in the polling stations. She later reversed that decision and rescinded the appointments of six Monroe residents she had assigned to Kiryas Joel, according to court papers filed in a subsequent lawsuit.
In that case, brought by civil-rights attorney Michael Sussman, nine Monroe residents who had asked to work in Kiryas Joel contend the county’s refusal to allow outside inspectors in Kiryas Joel amounted to religious discrimination, and ask the court to prohibit that practice. The suit suggests Bahren’s canceled her initial assignments at the behest of the county legal department that Chapman now runs.
In a response submitted to state Supreme Court on Oct. 10, an attorney for the Poughkeepsie firm hired to defend the county and its Board of Elections argued that five of the plaintiffs had no standing, that Bahren’s initial assignment of outside inspectors had been invalid under state law because Green hadn’t agreed to them, and that the plaintiffs couldn’t claim discrimination because they didn’t belong to a “protected class.”
When the Times Herald-Record asked this month if Kiryas Joel officials had any objection to outside election inspectors, Village Administrator Gedalye Szegedin effectively said they did, alluding to the Hasidic community’s unique cultural practices and native Yiddish language in an emailed statement provided by the village’s public-relations firm.
The statement read, “As a Village official with the focus on ensuring the community is well served, and like other Orange County-based communities, I favor the appointment of elections inspectors who have a familiarity with the cultural sensitivities and customs of their neighbors, as well as the ability to speak the language of the residents. I am confident in the ability of the court to protect the integrity of the electoral process.”
But leaving nothing to chance, Kiryas Joel filed court papers last Monday seeking to intervene as a party in the lawsuit against the county. The village’s motion said it had an interest in “ensuring that Yiddish-speaking election inspectors continue to be assigned to election districts in Kiryas Joel,” and that its residents’ voting rights “are not trampled on at the whim of an adverse political movement.”
One day later, state Supreme Justice Maria Rosa delivered a mixed ruling, declaring on one hand that the board's refusal to place outside inspectors in Kiryas Joel was "arbitrary and capricious" and that the board must reinstate the six plaintiffs whose assignments had been rescinded. But she doesn't specify in her ruling where they should work, and found no immediate grounds for a discrimination claim.
The conflict over election oversight was muted during the Sept. 9 primaries, in which turnout was relatively light in Kiryas Joel and United Monroe’s poll watchers made a modest number of challenges without resistance from any other parties. But bigger turnout - with the potential for more disagreements - is likely to come in the Nov. 4 general election for state and federal offices, which include a congressional race, the governor’s race and an Assembly contest that has a charged undertone in Monroe because of the pending annexation proposal.
Three candidates are running for the vacant 98th Assembly District seat next week, two of whom – Republican Karl Brabenec and Democrat Elisa Tutini – won primaries in September with the support of Kiryas Joel’s voting blocs. Castricone, a former county legislator from Tuxedo, lost the Republican primary to Brabenec, but is running on the United Monroe ballot line and has made his opposition to Kiryas Joel’s proposed expansion his central campaign issue.
United Monroe has been rallying voters to support Castricone and Dennis McWatters, who’s running for a vacant Town Board seat on the United Monroe line against a Democrat supported by Kiryas Joel’s leadership. The group recently sent out an email appeal to its supporters, asking for election day volunteers.
There has been repeated and widespread alleged and documented Satmar voter fraud in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as well. No one has ever been prosecuted. In Bloomingburg, New York Satmar, in conjunction with Modern Orthodox developer Shalom Lamm, also committed what seems to be clear voter fraud. And while 100-plus ballots were tossed due to apparent fraud in the tiny 420-person town's last general election in March, no one was prosecuted for that apparent voter fraud, either.