Yes, she voted, but don't you dare ask for whom

Rosemary Czulada is one of 11,000 absentees voters

Rosemary Czulada is one of 11,000 absentees voters in the Bishop-Altschuler race who had been inundated with calls in the past week trying to find out how she voted. (Nov. 13, 2010) (Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan)

Rick Brand

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All last week, Rosemary Czulada's telephone seemed to be constantly ringing and she was angry.

She estimated she got a dozen calls - as well as people knocking on her door in Riverhead - all asking the same question: Did she vote for Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop or his GOP foe Randy Altschuler?

"It's a real turnoff," said the Riverhead retiree, 66, who voted by absentee ballot because she worked 15 hours on Election Day as a poll inspector. Irked by intrusive inquiries, Czulada, unaligned to any party, refused to say how she voted. "It's an invasion of privacy to even ask who I voted for. No one has that right."

Czulada is just one of the nearly 11,000 absentee voters in the still unsettled 1st Congressional District race who have been inundated as both sides look for any edge they can muster in a race where Altschuler has a narrow lead over Bishop.

The effort, experts say, is a first for Long Island, though it's been used in other congressional races upstate and elsewhere. But officials say the practice is not being used in either Nassau's close 7th State Senate District race, where Mineola Mayor Jack Martins of the GOP is leading Democratic Sen. Craig Johnson, or the 1st Assembly District race, where Suffolk Legislature Minority Leader Dan Losquadro is ahead of incumbent Marc Alessi (D-Shoreham).

"I think most people understand this is a really tight race and both sides are reaching to see if every absentee who voted is a real person and actually cast a ballot," said Rob Ryan, Altschuler's spokesman.

Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said voters who feel uncomfortable disclosing their vote should simply decline to answer. But he defended the practice, saying there is no attempt to pressure people and it is much like exit polls done by national news organizations. He said about two-thirds of those contacted volunteered how they voted.

But Schaffer conceded people are tired of robocalls and political mail after a long campaign. "People thought it was going to be safe to pick up the phone after Nov. 2," said Schaffer. "Unfortunately this election is still continuing."

The discomfort is not surprising. The secret ballot, a reform that dates back to the 1894 presidential election, is ingrained in most Americans as a guard against undue pressure on voters - not uncommon during the day of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. And concern is only heightened because some say they feel the security of the new paper ballot voting system is less certain than the privacy provided by the curtain of the old lever machines.

Beyond fraud, some experts say it's crucial to determine how absentees voted so each side can be guided about whether to object before a sealed ballot is opened. The campaigns can object based on information supplied on the envelope, which includes the absentee's signature, the postmark and time stamp. "You don't want to object if you know they're for you," said one veteran operative, who did not wish to be identified.

But John Jay LaValle, Suffolk Republican chairman, claimed Democrats have a more nefarious motive, charging they misidentified themselves as the "Voter Protection Agency" when they showed up on people's doorsteps. He claimed they are trying to "scare and intimidate" absentee voters - many of them elderly - to keep them from showing up should the recount go to court.

A Bishop spokesman said a nondescript name was chosen so as not to sway voters either way.

Schaffer dismissed LaValle's claims as partisan sniping. "I didn't realize that John was so into reading conspiracy novels while on vacation," he said.

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