Berne GOP to file lawsuit to keep two votes uncounted in close race

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

Too close to call: Town tax collector Gerald O’Malley, left, town justice Albert Raymond, center, and town board candidate Joel Willsey, right, speak before the absentee ballots for Berne are counted. O’Malley and Raymond, both Democrats, kept their positions in the election, but Willsey, a Democrat running for the first time for town board, had one vote less than his opponent, Frank Brady. Two ballots have not been counted, and the GOP intends to file a lawsuit to ensure the Albany County Board of Elections does not count.

HILLTOWNS — Following a Republican surge in the Hilltowns on Election Day, the town board majority in Berne — formerly all Democrats — still hangs in the balance.

A vote count on Wednesday morning revealed there was a clean GOP sweep in Knox, with all incumbent Democrats ousted.

Following the canvassing of absentee ballots, the positions of Berne town supervisor and town council remain in the Republican candidates’ hold. But GOP-backed town council candidate Frank Brady is ahead of Democratic candidate Joel Willsey by just one vote. But that could change, as two absentee ballots have remained uncounted. Willsey told The Enterprise in an email later that day that it is believed that those two votes would be for him.

The two unopened ballots were brought in by Democratic chairman Gerald O’Malley, who kept his role as town tax collector in the election. New York State allows a voter to designate a specific person to pick up and drop off a ballot. However, O’Malley brought in 10 ballots and, in Albany County, a maximum of eight absentee ballots may be brought in by one person.

The ballots have since been set aside, but the Albany County Board of Elections will count these in three business days unless the Republican party files a lawsuit against the election board and the GOP’s opponents, said Rachel Bledi, the Republican Commissioner of the county’s board of elections. This will leave whether to count the ballots or not up to a judge.

Bledi said that taking an election decision to court is fairly common, involving issues ranging from the outcome of the election to the residency of a candidate. But she said this case is unusual because Albany County is the only county with a cap on the number of ballots that a person can be designated to collect.

The cap was put in place following a fraud scheme about a decade ago, she said, and the Albany County Board of Elections decided to keep in place the judge’s ruling, which has since expired.

“It just helps keep a safeguard in the system against ballot fraud,” she said.

Highway Superintendent and GOP Chairman Randy Bashwinger, who kept his position in this election, said that O’Malley should have known these rules regarding the ballot cap.

“We’re definitely going to contest it,” Bashwinger said.

O’Malley told The Enterprise Wednesday night that he did not know about the ballot cap. When he submitted the ballots, he said, it should have been simple for the Board of Elections to notify him then.

O’Malley said he met the couple who cast the two contested ballots while campaigning, and learned they had been planning on going away on vacation, and so he offered to pick up and drop off their ballots. He said this is what occurred with most of the ballots he dropped off. The Enterprise is withholding the couple’s names until they are reached for comment.

“It’s a regular thing — as you could see — there were 110 of them,” O’Malley said, of the absentee ballots.

He added that he was only trying to help this couple, and that they should not be at fault.

“They should be able to vote. They did not do anything wrong,” said O’Malley.

Incumbent Democrat Kevin Crosier had 48 absentee ballots and affidavits cast in his favor, giving him a total of 611 votes. Republican candidate Sean Lyons had 47 votes in his favor, giving him the winning total of 654.

Absentee ballots are cast by voters unable to get to the polls. Affidavits are ballots held aside by election officials until voter registration can be confirmed.

Jim Cooke, the Democratic candidate who had been appointed to the board in February, received 42 absentee and affidavit votes, giving him a total of 569. Dennis Palow, a Republican candidate for town board, took 42 votes as well, making him the top vote-getter with 624 votes. Willsey, who had been behind Brady by four votes in the unofficial count after the election, had 51 absentee ballot and affidavit votes, totaling 616 votes. Brady received 48, bringing him to 617 votes.

Palow attributed the GOP victory to gaining the smaller party nominations in September, and campaigning door-to-door.

“You can’t take things for granted,” he said.

Tim Lippert, Berne’s building inspector and code enforcement officer, was also at Wednesday’s canvass. He said that a well-attended Democratic caucus of 210 people predicted the upset in Berne. He himself received 40 percent of the caucus votes for the nomination for town supervisor, he said.

“That was the canary in the coal mine,” he said.

Lippert’s partner, Scott Green, was fired by Crosier last year following a dispute over providing domestic partner insurance coverage for Lippert.

“I don’t know exactly what the final count was … ,” said O’Malley Wednesday night, of the caucus. “As long as you were a Democrat, you could run for the position.”

In Knox, the only race with an election close enough to require absentee ballot canvassing was for town justice, between incumbent Democrat Jean Gagnon and Republican Tim Francis. Francis received 27 absentee ballots or affidavits in his favor, and Gagon took 23; this left Francis in the lead with 572 votes to Gagnon’s total of 524.

“I’m ready to work for the town of Knox,” said Francis. A newcomer to the role, Francis is a retired corrections officer for the county.

Francis stayed to watch Berne’s absentee ballot canvassing, along with Highway Superintendent Gary Salisbury — the Knox GOP chairman — and Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis. A Democrat, Lefkaditis ran on the Republican line this year and kept his position as supervisor for a second term.

Lefkaditis said that the Berne results were also pertinent for Knox, as the towns frequently work together.

More Hilltowns News

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  • BERNE — After decades of dominance in Berne, the Democrats lost the town board majority in the 20

  • Former Berne Deputy Town Clerk Jean Guarino says her boss, Town Clerk Anita Clayton, suspected her of leaking information about thePublic Employee Safety and Health Bureau report regarding the death of highway worker Peter Becker. The PESH report is a public document.

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