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Judge halts counting of Hempstead school vote over absentee ballot complaints

Hempstead resident Gypsy Jefferson, center, grows irate during

Hempstead resident Gypsy Jefferson, center, grows irate during a late-night meeting on election night, Tuesday, May 19, 2015, following voting controversy. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Hempstead school district's vote was halted and all machine ballots were ordered sealed after complaints over absentee ballots Tuesday night, according to representatives for the district and two of the board candidates.

The district, where allegations of irregularities led to a state-ordered special election last year, was headed for another protracted electoral fight as confusion reigned at the Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School polling site.

Candidates Maribel Toure and Gwendolyn Jackson raised questions only about absentee ballots, but the district stopped counting the budget vote and election ballots, said Scott Kershaw, an attorney for the Hempstead schools.

School board members met with the district's attorneys late Tuesday night and emerged after midnight without announcing any resolution.

The challenge stemmed, Toure said, from residents who came forward to say that they were offered absentee ballots even though they did not ask for and did not qualify for them. Some of the ballots, she said, were alleged to have been delivered by people not authorized to do so. Those residents have submitted sworn affidavits, she said.

Toure was seeking her first full term on the board after being elected in October in a vote ordered by the state education commissioner -- who acted on allegations of voter fraud, coercion and misuse of absentee ballots by then-incumbent Betty Cross. Cross, a district board member for decades, was removed and later lost to Toure in the special vote.

In Tuesday's vote, board member Shelley Brazley also was seeking a second term on the five-member board.

Toure partnered with Jackson for the run, while Brazley partnered with David B. Gates. Other candidates for the two at-large seats were Caprice Rines, Hans Thevenot and Jeffrey Spencer. Voters were casting ballots on a $189,934,158 budget that represented a 2.69 percent increase from last year's.

The ballot problems capped a day of controversy during which Toure's supporters complained about erroneous absentee ballots sent to some voters. School board president Lamont Johnson acknowledged the district had made mistakes -- first leaving the budget out of the absentee ballots and then listing Cross as board treasurer in the letterhead of a missive to voters.

The letter was sent out March 11 and was signed by District Clerk Patricia Wright.

"It shouldn't have happened," Johnson said. "There's really no excuse for it."

As soon as the announcement on the delay was made, the crowd erupted in anger, yelling down board members who tried to explain what was happening.

There were 1,427 machine votes. It is unclear how many absentee ballots there are.

Toure, during a break when the meeting was adjourned, estimated there were roughly 400 absentee ballots. Asked how she felt about the issue, she said, "I just want it to be over."

Candidates Rines, Spencer and Gates were outraged.

"We have the right to know who votes for us," Rines said.

The machines were sealed late Tuesday and were to remain on-site overnight at the district, under the watch of the district's security guards and cameras, administrators said.

Gates, who led his followers in spirited prayer and singing as they waited, told trustees he did not understand how the vote could be stopped on account of one candidate.

"How does one candidate get to determine what the outcome is?" he asked, to applause. "Where is the voice of the six other candidates? . . . This means war!"

Adding to the day's tensions, and chaos, was criticism directed at Brazley for posting the image and words of Adolf Hitler on her Facebook page, as part of a countdown to election day that she said was meant to motivate voters out of their complacency.

A message she posted on May 14 -- as part of series in which she quoted the thoughts of such historical figures as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, President Barack Obama and boxing legend Muhammad Ali -- cited a speech Hitler delivered to his generals in 1939, saying among other things that "In starting and waging a war it is not right that matters, but victory."

Jackson called the posting "appalling" and divisive.

Brazley said there was nothing racist or anti-Semitic about the message, even though she said she "probably should have thought more about it" before posting it. "What I did was simply liken the condition of my community . . . to that time period," she said, to warn about the dangers "of not paying attention" to politics.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated how the counting of ballots in the Hempstead school districtas vote on its proposed 2015-16 budget and school board election was halted Tuesday night.

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