By Ron Klopfanstein
Two days after the failed coup attempt in Washington, Patrick Lohmann, a reporter for Syracuse.com broke staggering political news closer to home.
“700 votes were tossed in Oneida County. Officials ignored state law in latest mess up,” his headline read. This was topped the following day when Lohmann broke the story that “The Oneida County Board of Elections failed to register 2,418 residents who applied on time, rendering them unable to vote on Election Day.”
On Tuesday, January 12th, Josh Rosenblatt, a Senior Reporter at WBGN 12 News, in Binghamton broke the equally remarkable news that Rose Marie Grimaldi and Carolann Cardone, the two Oneida County Board of Elections commissioners who were responsible for the disenfranchisement of these thousands of voters, had both been reappointed to their positions weeks ago-long after these “mess-ups” occurred.
“There were too many errors,” Tony Taurisano, a voter from Westmoreland, said in an interview via Twitter. “They were in charge, so in my opinion, they should have been replaced.”
While Taurisano, like most of the people I talked to in the wake of these revelations, assumed that our county elections hadn’t warranted the scrutiny they are getting this year, that may not be the case.
“I am hearing things that this is ‘on-brand’ for Oneida County Board of Elections,” Katie Aiello reported in a YouTube video posted on December 1, 2020. “At the very least, our politics here are always ‘entertaining.’”
Aiello is an independent new media journalist who has produced videos for both YouTube and her account at Instagram.com/KatieAiello.
“We have [Anthony] Brindisi and [Claudia] Tenney running for Congress; less than one hundred votes separate them,” she explains in her video. “It’s always bad to misplace a vote and [incorrectly] categorize it especially with a sticky note.”
Those Oneida County Board of Election “sticky notes” have been the source of consternation, derision, and humor over the past two and half months.
“County BOEs are supposed to mark info about challenged ballots directly on the ballots,” Ricky Sayer, a Syracuse University student and intern at WBGN in Binghamton explained in a tweet. “Some BOEs used sticky notes instead. Many of those sticky notes fell off, making it very tough for a court to determine if they had been counted or not, as well as if they should count.”
Sayer and Josh Rosenblatt reported on November 23, 2020, that Judge Scott DelConte, who is tasked with sorting through the mess, said about our Board of Elections’ sticky notes, “we have a serious problem on our hands.”
Indeed. While the bumbling seems almost comical at times, the consequences are dire.
Errors Undermine Faith in the System
“This feeds right into the right-wing conspiracy that we can’t trust the government,” Mark Spadafore, the Upstate New York Political Director for 1199SEIU (Service Employees Internation Union), which represents health care workers at several locations in Oneida County. “This is bad.”
In a phone interview, Spadafore told me that there need to be consequences and confirmed a fear many have-that the massive voter disenfranchisement would benefit the Claudia Tenney campaign. This is because the 2,418 Oneida County citizens who applied to vote but whose registration to vote wasn’t processed did so through the Department of Motor Vehicles. Improving accessibility to voter registration is generally to make participation in the political process within reach of lower-income and marginalized communities, who often vote Democratic.
“If Anthony [Brindisi] loses shame on them,” Spadafore said. “At the end of the day, it’s one of those things where the will of the voters didn’t shine through.”
It’s not clear, however, who will benefit from the Board of Election’s mistakes. According to Dustin Czarny, among the ballots rescued by the court and ruled admissible by Judge DelConte, the majority so far have favored Tenney. He is the Onondaga County Democratic Elections Commissioner and Democratic Caucus Chair for the New York State Elections Commissions. I asked him what he thought about Oneida County’s news.
“I can tell you that this is not normal,” Czarny told me by phone. “The fact that there were 700 ballots that were rejected on top of 2,400 [registration forms] not processed. This is egregious.”
A law was passed back in January of 2019 that allows people registered in the state but who have moved outside of their county to vote by affidavit in their current county of residence. The 700 ballots that the Oneida County Board of Elections tried to discard resulted from these legal attempts by people to vote by affidavit.
“Should they [BOE] be held accountable?” Czarny said. “Absolutely.”
While he insisted that I consider the fact that resources are an issue and that “all county legislatures starve their board of elections,” I thought back to something Katie Aiello had said in her Instagram video.
“$167,000 combined salary for those two,” she pointed out, referring to Grimaldi and Cardone. “So, I think I am mad about sticky notes.”
In her video, Aiello cited several oddities going back through the recent history of the Oneida County Board of Elections, particularly the mystery around Pamela Mandryck, who switched parties while serving as a commissioner after drawing nationwide attention in 2012 for misspelling the name of President Barack Obama on the county’s sample ballots.
If all of the disenfranchised voters are added together, they number 3,118 voters. The race for Congress in our district between Anthony Brindisi and Claudia Tenney is, as of this writing, is separated by only 29 votes. This means that if literally one percent of the disenfranchised voters could determine the outcome of that election. If all 3,118 of those Oneida County citizens had been allowed to exercise their legal right to vote, the outcome could be entirely different from what the court must ultimately rule it to be. Whatever the result, the 2020 Congressional race outcome in our district could be reasonably regarded by some as illegitimate. This is doubly concerning because the fabric of the country has been rent by similar meritless allegations about the Presidential election.
According to Dustin Czarny, now that the two commissioners have been reappointed by the Democratic and Republican Committees of Oneida County and the Oneida County Board of Legislators, the only person the voters can appeal to now to Governor Andrew Cuomo (www.governor.ny.gov/content/governor-contact-form.)
“It should have never happened this way,” he said. “For accountability, though, it’s the Governor’s call.”
“I’m listening to what both county committees and Oneida County Legislators are saying publicly on the matter. Or more importantly, what they’re not saying,” Katie Aiello summed it up in a Twitter DM. “I worry their silence means they’re fine with the job that has been done. If this is true, we have bigger issues than just the failures that have been revealed in court.”
A Poll Worker Speaks Out
“I was a little dismayed at the whole operation,” a woman who asked to be called “Margo” recounted her experience as a poll worker this past fall. “There were a bunch of older people who didn’t know the hell what was going on. The new ones and I were looking at each other and saying, ‘this is crazy.’”
I reached out to “Margo” after reading her responses to my column on Facebook. She told me her real name (which she agreed I could share with the editor if he asked) but only permitted me to say that the voting site where she worked was the Jewish Community Center in Utica.
“A couple came in to vote,” she recalled. “He was in the book; she wasn’t. The woman [poll worker] next to me said she couldn’t vote. I said, ‘that’s not up to us!’ and handed her an affidavit.”
“Margo,” thinks they were both doctors and remembers them as being very upset. She says they had their kids with them.
“All the new people were saying, ‘this is crazy, nobody knows the hell what we’re doing!’” she repeated for emphasis. “There was just confusion about what to do; it wasn’t very well organized.”
“Margo” is still angry at what she witnessed and what she’s since learned about the Oneida County Board of Elections scandals. These include 2,418 voter registration applications not processed, 700 votes Judge Scott DelConte had to prevent from “discarding,” and most of all, the recent reappointment of BOE Commissioners Rose Grimaldi and Carolann Cardone.
“The whole thing needs a rehaul,” “Margo” insisted. “And to think those two women were put back into those positions! Even after the judge admonished them!”
Rose Grimaldi and Carolann Cardone did not return phone calls asking for comment.
“Margo” would like to see a re-vote or a runoff election between incumbent Congressman Anthony Brindisi, the Democrat, and challenger Claudia Tenney, the Republican, but without Keith Price, the Libertarian candidate who came in a distant third.
“It Just Doesn’t Add Up”
Tim Julian, a member of the Oneida County Board of Legislators (Independence Party), pointed out that Rose Grimaldi was reappointed prior to the election, thus before “the majority of the issues have come to light.”
Julian emphasized that Boards of Elections are notoriously underfunded. This made the process extremely difficult in a year he describes as a “perfect storm” because of COVID’s direct impact on personnel and the tremendous increase in the number of mail-in ballots.
“There were sweeping changes without proper funding,” he said.
I wondered if the commissioners’ reappointments were simply a pro forma exercise in which the county legislators routinely validated the Republican and Democratic county committees’ nominees.
“Yes,” he said. “We leave it up to the parties.”
“But, will the legislators follow up with them considering what happened?” I asked. “Who ultimately ‘takes the heat?’”
“They’re still in court,” Julian explained that he and his colleagues didn’t want to impede the election process further. “When this all shakes out, we’ll see where the missteps were.”
“Yes, it was a screw-up,” Bill Thickstun, the Oneida County Democratic Committee Chair of Towns, admitted. “That’s one of the reasons we didn’t rush to reappoint [Democratic commissioner] Carolann Cardone in November.”
Thickstun says that Cardone is still “the most competent person in that office.”
He told me she realized after June 23, 2020, that it had been “impossible to process the unbelievable number of mail-in ballots” even for that relatively smaller primary election. He says she assured him that it could not be allowed to happen in the general election. To ensure it didn’t, she even outsourced the absentee ballots to Fort Orange Press, a company that, according to their website (fortorangepress.com/ballot-printing/) “mastered the ballot production workflow to assure superior ballot printing services and a trouble-free election day.”
Ultimately, though, according to Thickstun, the increased demands required an infusion of federal aid that never arrived. Election Day was anything but “trouble-free.”
“There was a bill in the House [of Representatives] for months,” he explains. “But [then Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell blocked it because he and Trump thought it would benefit the blue states like ours.”
I asked Pete Sobel, the Oneida County Republican Committee Chairman, to comment on the reappointments.
“For the record Rose Grimaldi [Republican commissioner] has been reappointed five times, [most recently] in October 2020,” he pointed out.
I asked him if his party shared Judge DelConte’s concerns about the over three thousand potentially disenfranchised voters.
“At the conclusion of the judge’s discussion [trial], we will reconvene and have a review and discussion,” he replied.
“Who is ‘we?’” I asked.
“I don’t have a definition as to who,” he answered. “I will join others, and others will join me, and we will have a review.”
The only person, other than Judge DelConte who can take action at this point is Governor Andrew Cuomo. I asked his Rich Azzopardi, Senior Advisor and Spokesman, if the Governor was aware of the situation.
“We are aware of the various operational issues in this race and across the state on Election Day,” Azzopardi assured me. “We have proposed some remedies so that we don’t have this haphazard process again.”
He told me that the Governor’s proposed budget calls for funding to help count the absentee ballots quicker so that, like other states, ballots can be opened, counted, and cured more efficiently.
“In the last few years, the Governor has done a lot of things to open up the election process and make the process way less restrictive,” Azzopardi reminded me. “But, we do need to speed it up because it is still too unacceptably slow.”
According to Luke Perry, Professor of Government of Utica College, “Now the full extent of Oneida County’s shortcomings this cycle are known, including disenfranchising thousands of voters. It’s reasonable to expect one or both commissioners to resign and hope both party committees agree to collectively reform the selection of Board of Elections commissioners/staff and overhaul our electoral administration.”
Perry added that “at minimum, this is necessary to help restore public trust in local government and strengthen our democracy.”
This lack of trust in the system is precisely what the poll worker, “Margo,” articulated to me when we spoke this week. The Oneida County Board of Elections trained her, she worked at the polls on Election Day, and she has been following the case and the statements made by Rose Grimaldi and Carolann Cardone very closely over the past few months.
Her conclusion, “the testimony given by those women…it just doesn’t add up.”
Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/ReadRonKlopfanstein and Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein