New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King Jr....

New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King Jr. answers a question from a member of the New York State Senate Education Committee during a two-hour meeting at the Capitol in Albany on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Philip Kamrass

The Hempstead school district must hold a new election for a contested seat briefly filled by longtime board president Betty Cross, state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. ruled Thursday in annulling that portion of the May 20 election.

King last month ordered Cross to step down as he weighed the merits of the vote after challenger Maribel Touré accused Cross and her supporters of fraud, coercion and abuse of the absentee balloting process. His decision came just 11 weeks after he was petitioned to weigh in; it could have taken some eight months.

King, in his decision, ruled that the district must comply with monitors he will select to oversee the vote. The term of the at-large board seat expires June 30, 2015.

School board president Lamont Johnson said he did not know when the election would be held, but it would be "hopefully as soon as possible."

Johnson said he was not concerned about the cost, saying that is what is being required of the district. "We have to do what has to be done," he said.

The board held a regular meeting Thursday night but took no action on the vote. Beforehand, more than two dozen protesters stood outside Hempstead High School, chanting, making speeches and singing.

They were glad Cross' election had been deemed invalid, but were equally upset about Touré and her coalition of volunteers having to mount another run.

They want to see criminal charges filed in the matter.

"What we now need is for the district attorney . . . to step up and tell us who is going to jail," said Sergio Argueta, an activist with The Corridor Counts, a civic group.

Touré told the crowd she was "still in shock" and "very, very disappointed" with King's decision to invalidate the race's results.

"We proved to him that we ran a very clean, honest campaign. . . . I feel that the whole community has been in a punishment for doing the right thing and he is giving her a second chance."

The residents, who stood behind Touré as she spoke, carried signs that read "Commissioner Save Our Students" and "We The Children Deserve Better."

At one point, they chanted: "D.A. Rice. Do the right thing!" -- calling for Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice to conclude her investigation.

Dennis Jones, a retired police detective and father of a high school student who helped monitor the election, said the commissioner's decision was "almost bittersweet."

"It's hurting us that they took that long to come to this conclusion," said Jones, 52. "You are telling all of the people who came out . . . that no matter what you guys did in May, and that you did it correctly, because you did it in the voting booth, that wasn't good enough."

But Frederick K. Brewington, Touré's attorney, praised the outcome, saying "It's time for the community to heal."

Even as they feared the community would be torn again if it is put through another costly and divisive vote, advocates vowed to move forward.

"If we have to do an election, we'll do an election. We'll get out there and we'll mobilize the community again," said Diane Goins, of New York Communities for Change.

Roger Tilles, who represents Long Island on the Board of Regents, said King had to throw out results for the contested seat because it was impossible to determine which of the absentee ballots cast for Cross and Touré was valid.

Touré had 712 votes on election night, compared with Cross' 691. The next day, dozens of contested absentee ballots were included in the totals, putting Cross ahead by six votes, beating Touré 719 to 713.

"It was clearly an election that had been tampered with one way or another," Tilles said.

"I strongly hope that the community will not feel disenfranchised and that the people who came out to vote in larger numbers in this last election continue to do so -- and that the electionbe closely monitored."

Tilles said it's obvious that district clerk Patricia Wright, named in Touré's petition to the state along with Cross and the school district, did not properly oversee the election.

"It was clear that there were errors made in the clerk's office and those would have to be remedied and monitored," he said.

District clerk Patricia Wright, named in Touré's complaint, declined to comment Thursday night on Tilles' comments.

The petition to King argued the absentee ballots were obtained surreptitiously and called out the district for not keeping a list of such voters open to the public.

King said the failure to maintain that list "demonstrates a degree of laxity in the handling of absentee ballots that threatened the integrity of the election."

He noted the disparity between the number of absentee votes in favor of Cross vs. the machine votes she collected; she had 159 fewer machine votes than Toure but half the absentee votes cast for seven candidates.

"On its face, such a disparity in the number of absentee ballots cast in favor of a single candidate is highly suspect," King said in his decision.

Ricky Cooke, the highest vote-getter, received 802 votes, including six absentee ballots. He was sworn in with Cross during an emergency meeting on May 21 and will remain in his post.

Absentee votes have grown increasingly popular in Hempstead and across the nation.

District officials said 44 people voted by absentee ballot in 2012, increasing to 103 a year later, according to records obtained by Newsday under a Freedom of Information Law request.

It's not clear how many absentee ballots were filed this year, but a total of 343 absentee votes were cast for seven candidates in the 2014 election.

District officials did not know the total number as those ballots because they were collected months ago by the Nassau district attorney's office.

David Schultz, a professor of law and political science at Hamline University in Minnesota who teaches public policy, campaigns and elections, and government ethics, said many states are relaxing the rules governing absentee ballots, making it a more attractive option.

While he did not address the Hempstead election specifically, he said instances of voter fraud often center around absentee ballots, whether they are incorrectly filled out or are used to strong-arm voters.

"If you were going to try to manipulate an election, one of the ways you would do it is to try and do something with the absentee ballots -- not count certain ballots, or try to figure out ways to make sure the people who are absentee voting do so for you," he said.

With Víctor Manuel Ramos and Zachary R. Dowdy

COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

Here are a few key outcomes resulting from state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr.'s decision regarding a contested school board race in Hempstead:

Wrote the board exercised "a degree of laxity in the handling of absentee ballots that threatened the integrity of the election"

Ordered a special election to fill at-large seat under contest between longtime board president Betty Cross and challenger Maribel Touré

Ruled the district must comply with monitors he will select to oversee vote

Date of election is unclear

Board president Lamont Johnson agrees to hold election, no matter the cost.

Source: Newsday reporting

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