Vote of No Confidence in Voting My Vote Didn't Count, and I Learned a Lot By Adama Brown

Like most people with strong political opinions, I don't just enjoy politics: I enjoy voting. I dare say a lot of less-political people feel that way too.

Even these days, without that heavy satisfying "thunk" noise of the old lever machines, there's always satisfaction at being part of the process. Which makes it too bad that here in New York State, your vote can be mangled, lost or even changed by a Board of Elections that's accountable to almost no one.

Although we like to think of our electoral process as being inviolate (at least, outside of Florida), New York is just as ripe as the orange juice state for electoral disasters. And worse yet, you might never know your vote had been lost. After all, I certainly didn't when mine vanished.

To illustrate my point, let me walk us back a little over three years to the summer of 2010, and tell you a story of when I was running various duties for a State Senate campaign. One of these was sorting voting records here in Wyoming County to find "prime" Democratic voters, like presidential primary voters, who could be persuaded to give money. Except that there was something wrong with the presidential primary numbers. The numbers submitted to the state, and posted on the State BOE's website (where you can still find them today) cited 4,434 primary voters - out of only 6,159 registered Democrats in Wyoming County at the time, a turnout figure that would be implausible at best.

But more than 60 percent of those "votes" were listed under the BOE category "Blank, Void and Scattering," meaning that supposedly people had come in, then registered a blank vote for the one single election being held that day. Comparing it against the Republican primary results for Wyoming County made it stranger - there too, it was claimed that there were exactly 4,434 voters. And 40 percent of those were treated as blank. And, if you allow for roughly the 1 percent average that actually does fall into the "Blank, Void and Scattering" category, you'll find that the number of invalid votes comes to 4,434. You don't have to be a math whiz to know that that's about as likely as getting knocked out by a block of $100 bills that fell out of an airplane.

Cut to a couple months later, when I got access to a copy of the WCBOE's own records. The internal numbers reflect 1,610 Democratic primary voters, and 2,555 Republican primary voters, numbers actually appropriate for this area. However, their records of the votes don't tally up with the actual "valid" votes submitted to the state: 1,708 Democrats and 2,639 Republicans. Even by that count, the county submitted almost 200 more votes than there were voters.

Eventually, through persistence and the help of a mutual acquaintance, I managed to put my research in front of one of the co-chairs of the State Board of Elections, only to discover that the state already knew. In fact, they had sent the Wyoming County BOE a warning after the incident, suggesting that they correct their numbers and re-file. The Wyoming County BOE, unsurprisingly, did not respond to the state's official request, nor did they issue corrected numbers.

Unfortunately, that sternly-worded letter was as much fallout as the Wyoming County BOE would face. Thanks to the way that New York State election law is written, county boards have absolutely no oversight other than what is provided - or more often, not provided - by the political parties of their county. The state board has no authority to do more than complain, and doesn't even have the power to exclude election returns which are obviously mangled or false.

By that measure, a county could submit one million votes for Bugs Bunny, and the state BOE would be forced to include it. The only people with the ability to do anything are the county party chairs, who typically assign the election commissioner jobs as patronage, or simply hand them out to whoever happens to be willing to do them, without regard for whether they're actually good at coordinating elections.

Case in point, even after the issue of the falsified 2008 election results was known to the local Democratic leaders, Wyoming County's two Democratic commissioners were easily reelected. I can't speak to knowledge on the Republican side, but the Republican election commissioner of 2008 is still commissioner today. Nor is this sort of thing an isolated incident. Several other counties in New York reported excessive "Blank, Void and Scattering" numbers in the 2008 primary, and Wyoming County has several more election irregularities of its own (like several different tallies for the 2008 general election), although ones that I have less evidence for.

I love voting, but the lack of oversight in New York State's elections cost me the satisfaction of knowing that my vote--and the votes of thousands of others here in Wyoming County--were accurately counted, or counted at all, in at least one election. And for me, it raises troubling questions about just how much faith I have the next time I mark my ballot.

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