GIANNA VOLPE PHOTOS | Some 282 absentee and affadavit ballots were counted on Friday, November 19 at the Suffolk County Board of Elections in Yaphank. The count cost Glenn Waddington (center right, with Democratic Chair Heather Reylek beside him) his lead and the election.
A look at the absentee ballot counting process
It took nine hours to count Shelter Island’s 282 absentee, affidavit, and unscanned ballots at the Suffolk County Board of Elections building in Yaphank on Friday.
The count began at 10:30 a.m., though two of the supervisor candidates, Jim Dougherty and Glenn Waddington, arrived at the BOE building at 9:00 a.m. Except for a few glimpses, Mr. Dougherty was not in evidence in the large warehouse-like room where the absentee ballots were counted.
Despite the sense of victory he and his supporters celebrated on Election Night, when he had a 61-vote lead, Mr. Waddington said he’d become especially nervous in the days leading up to the absentee count. “I’d wake up at 2 in the morning and not be able to go back to sleep,” he said.
During those days, Mr. Waddington said he had reviewed names of those who had requested absentee ballots to guess which way the vote might go. “You can drive yourself crazy looking at all the absentees,” he said.
Part of Mr. Waddington’s campaign effort, he said, had been asking Shelter Island students away at college for their votes.
Soon after they arrived, Mr. Waddington and Wayne Bourne, who assisted him with the vote count and Board of Elections matters, were invited into the office of the Republican Deputy Commissioner, Bill Ellis. Mr. Ellis told Mr. Waddington, “This whole thing will be on the absentees.” What made the race particularly hard to predict, Mr. Ellis said, was Shelter Islanders’ habit of cross-party voting.
Back in the lobby, Cathy and Neil Raymond of the Conservative Party said, “We’re here for Glenn and Paul,” referring to council candidate Paul Shepherd. Both had Conservative Party support.
Suffolk County Board of Elections inspectors pass around ballots during the count on Friday.
Ms. Raymond said she was there to oversee the process to make sure that it remained honest.
Mr. Shepherd, who had arrived by about 10, asked when he would be able to go into the back room as a candidate and was told by a Board of Elections worker that he would have to wait until he’d been cleared. He was allowed in 20 minutes later.
At about 10:30 a.m., several spectators to the count, including two reporters, were guided by a board employee from the lobby into the large back-room warehouse with a pitched ceiling and long fluorescent lights. This was where election counts and recanvasses were being held not only for Shelter Island but other towns including Southampton, Islip and East Hampton.
Inside the large room, board inspectors and employees, lawyers and candidates could be seen through stacks of shelves filled with files and boxes. Overhead, a giant American flag hung from the ceiling. To the left was a hallway that housed the entrance to the cafeteria and to the right there was a table where a security guard sat.
More than 10 long, rectangular tables with metal folding chairs were set up throughout the room for individual counts. The area for spectators was more than 5 yards away but the Reporter’s representative was given a table about 4 feet from the action at the tables with strict rules not to deviate from the spot. Shelter Island’s table, close to the metal shelves, was about 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, only a quarter the size of most others. Two board inspectors sat on one side. They ran the count.
Setting up the small, rectangular table for a three-way race took a bit of adjustment. The staff was initially confused and insisted there be four people at the table: two people from each major party.
“But it’s a three-way race,” said attorney Bob DeStefano Jr., who wanted to sit at the table to represent his father, Republican candidate Bob DeStefano. One board inspector made sure that each side was represented.
Across from the board inspectors were Heather Reylek, chairman of the Democratic Committee, candidate Glenn Waddington and his advisor Mr. Bourne. Two other attorneys were intermittently involved on the Democrats’ behalf. Sometimes Democratic volunteer Mary Dwyer switched places with Ms. Reylek. Attorney Vincent Messina of Central Islip, who represented Mr. Waddington and three other clients involved in other town counts, sometimes appeared at the table. At opposite ends of the table sat attorney Joe DeVincent of Islip for the Democrats and Bob DeStefano Jr.
At about 10:30 a.m., the ballots, in plastic bags, were brought to the table by Board of Elections employees, beginning with the Island’s Election District 1. All four districts would not be counted until about 7:45 Friday evening.
The process for counting ballots began, district by district, with the unopened ballots being passed around the table, one by one. Challenges could be made for defects such as an unsealed or non-postmarked envelope. To make a challenge, a yellow slip of paper explaining the reason for the challenge had to be filled out by the challenger and then stapled to the ballot.
After the inspectors opened the envelopes and removed the ballots, they were passed around one by one to the observers at the table. They included ballots that were accompanied by signed affidavits attesting to the voter’s legal right to participate. Reasons to challenge a ballot included the use of pencil, ballots with missing information and mis-matched dates or signatures. When a signature was challenged, the BOE brought up the person’s signature from its computerized database to make sure it matched the name on the envelope.
Challenged ballots, which totaled 22 by the end of the day, were put in a separate pile. The inspectors then tallied the remaining ballots, by then separated from any envelope or affidavit that could identify who cast them, by party line.
The entire process was repeated four times, once for each district.
Counting the first district took an hour and a half on Friday. It broke to Mr. Dougherty with 44 votes to Mr. Waddington’s 18, bringing the overall election margin to 35 votes in favor of Mr. Waddington. Mr. Waddington said at noon’s lunch break, “I’m three districts out and I’m still holding a pretty good lead.”
District 2’s numbers were opened at 2:30. “I lost the Center,” Mr. Waddington said after the count. He said he remained guardedly optimistic but worried as he was “27 votes up with two big districts to go.”
District 3 had 63 absentee ballots and 2 affidavit ballots as well as 2 unscanned ballots, which had gone into an emergency slot of the scanning machine on Election Night. The unscanned votes were presented in a separate bag.
As the counting process went on, it looked as if Mr. Waddington’s margin was shrinking further.
Democratic incumbent Jim Dougherty approached the table at about 3:15. Asked if he was optimistic, Mr. Dougherty answered, “Whatever the voters decide.”
Mr. Waddington, asked about his status in the race at 4:15 p.m., said, “My margin is shrinking.” At 4:30 p.m. a write-in vote for Batman was challenged by Democratic attorney DeVincent. “Seriously?” asked Republican attorney Messina.
Mr. DeVincent announced at 4:51 p.m., “It’s a 3-vote race at this point.”
Mr. Dougherty appeared some distance from the table at 5:10 p.m, for a few seconds, smiling.
“District 3 destroyed me,” Mr. Waddington said. Referring to District 4, he added, “If he spanks me by 30 votes in this district, that’s more than the number of challenges and I’ll take the advice of the attorney.”
A host of objections was made by the Waddington camp between 5:30 and 5:45 p.m.
At 5:46 p.m., Mr. Waddington began his personal concession process. “It might be nice to go back to just worrying about the wind and the tide,” he said.
There were 68 absentee ballots in District 4, 8 affidavits and 10 objections, for a total of 66 counted ballots. The count was complete at about 7:15 p.m.: 37 for Mr. Dougherty, 19 for Mr. DeStefano and 10 for Mr. Waddington.
Mr. Waddington’s team requested that all 22 challenged ballots be opened by the Board of Election’s two commissioners, though Mr. Waddington would lose even if all of them went his way.
As of Friday, Mr. Dougherty was leading with 630 votes to 607 for Mr. Waddington, with 278 for Mr. DeStefano.
Democratic Commissioner Anita Katz said Friday that she expected to review the challenged ballots with Republican Commissioner Wayne Rogers on Monday. (She did so and 11 went to Mr. Dougherty, 6 to Mr. DeStefano and 4 for Mr. Waddington.)
Town Board candidate Paul Shepherd, who ran on the Local Liberty and Conservative ballot lines, was also present at Yaphank on Friday to witness the town council count, which began in the afternoon at another table. No other council candidate attended the count.
Mr. Shepherd said he feared absentee ballot counts because they are “a nightmare for Independents” because of “a lot of straight line voting.”
Mr. Shepherd sat with Neil and Cathy Raymond as the three kept track of the numbers. After District 1 was counted, Mr. Shepherd said the next-highest vote getter in the five-way race, Will Anderson, was carrying the absentees by a “two to one” vote margin. “If that persists,” he said, “it’s going to be a long day.”
He held his own in District 2, he reported later.
Mr. Shepherd said of the process, “This isn’t like sports — it’s brutal.” He likened the experience to getting a bikini wax.
Mr. Shepherd left at the 5:50 p.m. dinner break with what looked like a comfortable lead. “I’m alive, looks like I’m going to make it. Am I going to make it? I think I’ve got enough,” Mr. Shepherd said, ready to celebrate. “I’ve got a cigar screaming at me,” he said.