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Hempstead school district defends handling of absentee ballots

Betty Cross, then the president of the Hempstead

Betty Cross, then the president of the Hempstead School Board, adjourns the board's meeting on the evening of June 23, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Hempstead school district, in a filing to the state this week, said charges of voter fraud, intimidation and electioneering during the May 20 election were false.

The district defended its handling of absentee ballots, which when counted led to the re-election of longtime board member Betty Cross, who had trailed Maribel Touré on election night. Touré lost to Cross by six votes.

Cross was ordered last month by state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to step down while he considers the merits of the election as a whole.

Touré filed a petition to the state in June alleging that the district's improper actions caused her to lose the election.

In its response to the petition, which Hempstead was required to submit by Thursday, the district denied:

That representatives from Cross' campaign asked residents to allow them to vote on their behalf.

That absentee ballots were photocopied and reproduced.

That voters weren't given enough time to cast ballots.

That Spanish-speaking residents were not given translation services after poll workers learned they were voting for Touré.

Doing anything improper by giving Hempstead High School students rides to the polling site on the day of the election.

The district acknowledged in the response a "technical violation" for failing to create a list identifying who received absentee ballots. It said that the day before the election "a significant number of people" requested absentee ballots in person.

Touré, the second-highest vote-getter on election night, filed a petition with King in June, claiming election fraud, coercion and abuse of the absentee balloting process.

"The district has a very strong defense to the petition and believes the election was run lawfully," spokesman Nathan Jackson said Friday.

Cross was a fixture on the board for nearly three decades.

While Touré and a host of others argue that the problems with the vote are enough to warrant Cross' election being set aside, the district said in its response that it's unfair to single her out -- and that doing so would disenfranchise scores of voters.

The district said, too, that Touré's attorney, Fred Brewington of Hempstead, failed to name all the necessary parties, including Ricky Cooke, the highest vote-getter in the race. He and Touré ran as a team. The district said this undermines the petition; similar filings have been torpedoed by such omissions.

Brewington has said he named all of the proper parties, adding that Cooke's election has never been called into question. It was Cross' behavior -- and the actions of those on her campaign -- that warrant scrutiny, he has said.

Brewington said he will submit a reply to the district's filing this month and he believes the evidence he'll provide will help King "make a decision in our favor."

The district said the absentee ballots received the day of the election were properly scrutinized, though it admits that Touré's name was misspelled on the ballot.

The district denies claims that representatives from Cross' campaign asked residents to allow them to vote on their behalf -- or that absentee ballots were photocopied and reproduced. It also argues that a May 21 special meeting, in which contested absentee ballots were open and counted, was held lawfully.

With regard to the number of absentee ballots, Touré and Brewington say they were told just days before the election that 231 absentee ballots were recorded. They later learned another 301 had been issued.

The district admits that "no list was created identifying who received absentee ballots" but also said such a list was not requested and that this "technical violation" of the law "does not warrant the commissioner to order a new election."

The district further said that on May 19, a day before the election, "a significant number of people" came to the district clerk's office seeking absentee ballots.

Hempstead Town denies allegations that voters weren't given enough time to cast their ballots and that Spanish-speaking residents were not given translation services after poll workers learned they were voting for Touré -- or that they were turned away from polls.

The district admitted that some Hempstead High School students were given rides to the polling site on the day of the election, saying there is "nothing improper, illegal" about it, and it does not create "an irregularity requiring the commissioner to intervene in the election."

It admits, too, that absentee ballots arrived at the polls on election day, but says they were handled lawfully.

The district "does not know who dropped them off or whether they were from a particular campaign," the filing said.

On election night, Touré was found to have 712 votes to Cross' 691.

Of the 344 absentee ballots included in the final count, Cross received 172. Cooke did not get any of those votes, and Touré got seven, the district reported.

The Nassau County district attorney's office also is investigating the matter and has issued three subpoenas to the district, sources close to the case have said.

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