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Absentee ballot mix-up leaves Rockville Centre, Oceanside voters confused

Doug and Marlo Goodstein hold Baldwin absentee ballots

Doug and Marlo Goodstein hold Baldwin absentee ballots outside their Rockville Centre home on Friday. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Some voters in the Rockville Centre and Oceanside districts were confused Tuesday when their school district election ballots arrived. In the mailbox with them came a second ballot, from the district in Baldwin.

All registered voters are getting absentee ballots to vote in school districts’ June 9 budget and board elections, by order of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, leading to Rockville Centre's Facebook page quickly filling with dozens of befuddled recipients.

“I was confused and somewhat baffled,” said Doug Goodstein, a Rockville Centre resident who pays taxes to the Oceanside district and was among those receiving the Baldwin ballot. “Why was I receiving a ballot for a district I have nothing to do with?”

The answer apparently stems from a misunderstanding between the Baldwin district and the Nassau County Board of Elections, but both the district and the board are hastening to reassure the public that the district election and the upcoming primary vote in June will be valid despite the dramatically higher number of expected absentee votes.   

“This all-absentee-ballot election process is unprecedented, and we are already taking steps to assure that the lessons learned in this process will be applied to all future school district elections,” said Robert Leonard, a spokesman for the Baldwin district. “Our highest priority is providing the residents of our community with the ability to securely and confidently express themselves through our election.”

It's unclear now many ballots mistakenly went out. And while other districts haven’t reported a similar wide-scale mistake, other issues that can and do emerge with absentee or other voting material have cropped up, including two ballots sent to a home in the Elwood school district for a deceased elderly relative who never lived at that address, and a ballot sent to a deceased woman in Hempstead. Anyone who sought to use those ballots by forging a signature would be committing fraud, election officials said.

In Baldwin, a school district with 25,500 voters, an election typically draws fewer than 2,000 residents. Most come in person to the polling place where their place of residence within the district is verified, and those requesting absentee ballots are verified before the applications are mailed out, Leonard said in a statement. In 2019, just over 150 properly qualified voters came from postal codes outside the Baldwin ZIP code out of 1,700 votes cast.

The problem arose this year because absentee ballots were mailed to every name on the list of registered voters provided by the board of education. The district said it didn’t know that the list contained names of all voters who live in election districts that lie, even partially, inside the district, including thousands of voters whose houses lie outside district boundaries.

The Board of Election’s chief clerk, Essma Benkhouka, said districts were made aware when they got the lists each year that they had to cull the names of voters who didn’t reside in the district. Most districts use vendors to manage that list, cull ineligible voters and merge it with the list of voters registered directly by the districts. Voters who show up at the polls are verified as eligible both by their address and their registration signature, while the relatively few applications for absentee ballots can be verified as within district lines before ballots are mailed.

Leonard said Baldwin district officials who received the board of election list did not recall any such conversations about the extra voters on their list and that its written requests to the board always asked for voters within the district.

Baldwin uses a vendor to prepare its registration lists. The vendor does not automatically cull board lists of ineligible voters, although it gives an option for the district to list addresses to be weeded out. The vendor, Professional Innovative Programs, mainly serves fire districts. Its only school district client is Baldwin, which has used its services for 12 years to manage its registration lists. The district sends routine mailings, newsletters and notifications from its own list of residences — not voters — within its boundaries, while relying on the Board of Election for a list of registered voters.

“We have done an initial review of our election results for the last three years, which has shown that there were no cases of persons from outside our district attempting to vote in our elections,” Leonard said. “Baldwin school district residents with non-Baldwin postal addresses constitute just 3% of eligible voters in our district.”

This coming election, he said, every absentee ballot, no matter how many, would be scrutinized manually after they are mailed back, and its address verified as being within the district. The unsigned ballot is removed from the envelope containing the voter’s address and signed affidavit and viewed separately so it can remain anonymous. Ballots with questionable signatures or addresses will be set aside for an election inspector, he said.

The Board of Election's list itself can contain out-of-date voter information or inaccuracies. It is updated daily via various databases, including the Department of Motor Vehicles, Social Security, corrections departments and yearly mail check cards, as well as notifications from voters and their families, said James P. Scheuerman, Democratic commissioner on the Nassau Board of Elections, who acknowledged, however, that lapses can occur.

His counsel, Bonnie Garone, discounted the notion of widespread fraud or even the potential for it, noting that every absentee ballot requested and mailed in for the June primary and for the presidential election in November will be verified and “processed by an actual person." Signatures that look questionable, she said, are set aside for further review.

Nearly a million voters are registered in Nassau County. In 2016, the Democratic presidential primary drew 8,442 absentee ballots. This year so far, through May 28, “We received 17,500 applications,” Garone said. “More are coming in every day.” Most are coming in by mail and can continue to come in with the last dated postmark of June 16, before the June 23 primary. Not all the applications will result in an actual absentee ballot vote, as some may decide to vote in person, she said.

John E. Ryan, counsel to the Republican commissioner on the Nassau board, however, questioned Cuomo’s decision to waive the requirement for signatures in online and phone applications for absentee ballots for the June primary. Mailed applications are signed, and all ballot envelopes themselves must still be signed and checked against signatures on file. But, he said, he felt a signature to compare with them on an application added an additional level of security.

“We don’t know if the person making the request for an absentee ballot for the primary [online or by phone] is the actual voter,” he said.

Complaints have cropped up about absentee ballots mailed to the wrong address or to a deceased voter. In Suffolk County, in the Elwood school district, Catherine Herlich was irritated that she received not one but two ballots for an aunt who died in a nursing home in 2011. Herlich pursued the issue with her district and with the county board of education and said she was told the post office had used her address for forwarded mail. But, “She doesn’t live at my address and never did,” she said, apart from a week’s stay before entering the nursing home.

In the Hempstead school district, Denise Acerra complained that she received a ballot for her deceased sister-in-law to fill out. “Anyone could get their hands on it, fill it in and send it back,” she said. “Such a disgrace. People need jobs? Well, give people jobs checking the New York State death database, which is made public before mailing voters registration cards and mail-in voting ballots.”

Garone said centralized databases of death records go to the state Board of Elections and through them flow to the local boards. But she didn’t rule out particular circumstances where deaths could be missed, for example, if someone not on Social Security died out of state. “Those records might not have flowed through that reporting system,” she said. The fail-safe is, however, when a ballot comes in, the signature will be checked, she said.

In Baldwin, Leonard said, all returned ballots will first have their address confirmed against a list of district addresses, then the voter’s identity will be checked against the Board of Elections’ “software system to confirm they are a valid, qualified voter.” If there is doubt, the ballot is logged and referred to an on-site Board of Elections inspector.

As for the snafu with the out-of-district voters getting absentee ballots, he said that while the district might not have been aware of the extra voters on its voter list before, “We’re aware of it now.”

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