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The replay: Inside LI’s dramatic election night
Seesawing vote tallies led to some brutal up-and-down emotions Tuesday night for Nassau County executive candidates. The returns stumbling out of the Board of Elections headquarters in Mineola took a very peculiar path, with wide swings, yet each side remained confident it would win. Here’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what happened that night.
The campaign team for Republican Jack Martins thought the day was going exactly as it hoped. Throughout, turnout was tracking the 2013 county executive race that delivered a second term to Republican Edward Mangano. Despite off-year elections tending to favor Republicans, they feared an anti-Donald Trump mood might bump up turnout from Democrats, who vote in bigger numbers only for presidential races.
Besides turnout conforming to the off-year norm, Martins was running strong in Democratic areas such as Inwood, where he had helped open a community center. And Martins was running strong in some bellwether GOP areas, such as Massapequa, which he never represented.
Looking at some of the same numbers midday, Democrats were disappointed the faithful did not appear to be replicating the higher 2016 turnout to bolster Laura Curran. The numbers were still good, but would they be enough? Democrats took solace that absentee ballots returned by registered Democrats were running stronger than those of the GOP. Polls closed at 9 p.m., and early returns started trickling in at 10:15, and with only 12 percent of the precincts reporting, the tally showed Curran was up by 8 percent. Democrats knew, though, that margin might shrink, but they were pretty sure it would hold through the night.
Both camps were confident their candidate would deliver the victory speech later that evening.
Over at the BOE
It was that time of the night: Every computing device in the county was refreshing the vote results at the Nassau Board of Elections website, considered the state’s worst in reporting returns. It has been that way for decades. In previous elections, the media usually relied on the tally board at Republican headquarters. The party’s network of committeemen called the command center with the same results that poll workers were relaying to headquarters. As the crowd waited, someone would go onstage and update results — not all the results that were relayed to them, usually just the good numbers. When a certain race wasn’t updated, it was always a sign that things might not be going well. The party bought time to delay the outcome until after the 11 p.m. local TV news and often past Newsday’s print deadlines. The GOP was always in control.
Voting machines are now digital, enabling quick results throughout the state. The Suffolk County Board of Elections is considered a model of quick reporting. Not so in Nassau. Instead of loading the results remotely — that means using the internet — an alternate system is in place that slows down the reporting of tallies. Nassau County police collect flash drives containing the results from poll workers in each election district. After taking custody, officers drive the devices to the local police precinct. Once all of the “sticks,” as they are called, are rounded up for the area, suitcases containing the drives are driven to the loading dock behind election board headquarters in Mineola. From the dock, election workers take devices about 50 feet to computers to upload the information to the board’s feeble website, which at one point Tuesday night looked like this:
There is no protocol as to what order the sticks are uploaded into the computers. Nor, a specific timetable on how fast the police must take the suitcases containing the sticks to Mineola for counting.
There is no evidence to dispute the theory that the uploading of the returns Tuesday night was anything but random.
Back at the campaigns
Just after 10 on election night, Curran was knocked off the leader board. With 41 percent of the vote recorded, Martins was suddenly up by about 6,000 ballots. At 10:20, his campaign manager, O’Brien Murray, was starting to make predictions.
Inexplicably to Democrats, Martins was running up the score and was up by 9,000 votes just before 11 p.m. That was a lot of ground for Democrats to make up — every election district would have to break their way. Suddenly, they revisited earlier fears that the late afternoon heavy rain might have stymied turnout because Democrats tend to vote later in the day.
Republicans were getting pretty confident. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggested that Democrats would have to win 65 percent of the outstanding precincts, a tough hurdle. Murray emailed Max Kramer, his counterpart with the Curran campaign. Unlike common practice in most political campaigns, in which phone members are exchanged to coordinate election-night plans, there was no prior arrangement. Murray didn’t have any cellphone numbers for Curran’s people. So Murray scrolled through old emails until he found a Curran contact. And Murray, a hard-charging operative in the heat of battle, sent a message along these lines: Martins was planning to declare victory, and as a courtesy to Curran, Murray needed to know whether she wanted time to deliver a concession speech.
Murray declined to provide a copy of the email, but described the message as “maintaining positive spin” that Martins would win. Kramer got the email, showed it to Nassau Democrat Party chair Jay Jacobs, who advised not to answer it. Murray assumed a response had gone into spam when he never heard back.
But the email drew blood and forced Democrats to act. The Curran camp says that while it was still confident, there was a concern Martins might try to “steal the night and declare victory.”
To stall the GOP, Jacobs took the stage at the New Hyde Park Inn just before 11 p.m. and declared the race too close to call. He told the crowd that only half the vote was in from GOP areas and Democratic bastions were still outstanding.
Privately, however, he was worried. Jacobs was unable to get info from contacts at the BOE, and even he had trouble finding information on the BOE website. Democrats knew from anecdotal evidence that some of their strongholds had crushed their turnout, but they didn’t know whether those had already been counted and what exact percentage of those districts were still unrecorded. At that point, 9,000 votes might be a lot to make up.
For a few minutes, Jacobs felt it was the end of his tenure as Nassau Democratic leader. A few days earlier, he had told his inner circle at headquarters that if Curran lost, he would resign. Democrats hadn’t won the county’s top prize since Thomas Suozzi won a second term in 2005. Jacobs started to think of what he would say.
As he started to jot down some notes, however, there were excited shouts from another room. Curran was up by 2,700 votes, with only 15 percent of the election districts left to report. And they could finally see on the BOE website that the unreported vote was from Democratic strongholds.
It was a stunning 11,000-vote swing in about 25 minutes.
Martins’ campaign people couldn’t believe the spread and felt there had to be some error with the count, and that a canvas would correct it. Still, they were bewildered by the sudden turn.
Then GOP chairman Joseph Mondello took to the stage at party headquarters and conceded that Hempstead Supervisor Anthony Santino had lost, and to the reporters there that Martins had as well. A News 12 reporter delivered a live report saying as much, when his arm was tugged off camera to deliver the message that Martins was not conceding. Murray was still not convinced the numbers were solid.
Maybe it was real.
“I’m going to review them,” Martins told reporters as he left the GOP election night gathering. “We had the numbers coming in quickly at the end of the night. We had a 53-47 advantage and that turned around. We need to look at them.”
But Curran's camp didn’t look back: The first woman elected Nassau County executive declared victory just before midnight.
By morning, her lead had grown to 8,000 votes. With all the votes counted, she had won by 5 percentage points. Martins gave her a call of congratulations.
And the Nassau County Board of Elections once again was the loser.
Hempstead goes down
Friday is the anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. It comes as the Long Island political world deals with a modern wreck of its own. Our commemoration, with apologies to Gordon Lightfoot:
The legend lives on from the Matinecocks on down
of the group they call Hempstead Republicans.
The clan it is said never gives up its dead
it just hires their sons and their daughters.
With a load of jobs hundreds and hundreds or more
that the family could not afford losing.
The party and crew were a bone to be chewed
when the gales of November came early.
The party was the pride of the GOP side
known and praised across the entire nation.
As the big outfits go it was bigger than most
with a crew and good captain well seasoned.
Concluding some terms with the usual firms
they observed returns at their headquarters.
And later that night when alarms rang out bright
could it be the left wind they’d been feelin’?
As the evening wore on all the smiles were gone
as the numbers piled up most unfriendly.
The Corridor came in and it quieted the din
and the captain said, been good to know ya.
The counters called in they had numbers pouring in
and the good ship and crew was in trouble.
And later that night when they turned out the light
came the wreck of the Hempstead Republicans.