Dems urge ballot harvesting scrutiny

A three-sided screen offers privacy for voters at a local polling place. Lance Wheeler/For Columbia-Greene Media

CATSKILL — The Catskill Democratic Committee wrote an open letter to the Greene County Board of Elections asking for closer scrutiny of the absentee voting process known as “ballot harvesting” after July’s special village election.

The letter, signed by Democratic Committee Chairwoman Margaret Tomlinson, alleges that in the July 6 special election in the village of Catskill, then-Republican candidate Jeff Holliday and representatives of the Town of Catskill Republican Club collected, stored and hand-delivered absentee ballots to the Board of Elections.

Brent Bogardus, who chairs the Greene County Republican Committee, called the allegations in the letter “a blatant attempt to create an issue.”

“I’m fundamentally offended by this letter because it really impugns the integrity of both Commissioner Metzler, myself and our staff that we’re not diligently reviewing everything that comes into our office, which is just untrue,” Bogardus said.

Tomlinson expressed concern over a candidate and now village trustee handling the ballots.

“As we enter another election cycle, we request that the Board of Elections maintain appropriate oversight of the absentee process in the Town of Catskill,” Tomlinson wrote. “We all agree that absentee ballots are a good and necessary part of the process for any voter who qualifies, but a close race could very well be influenced by some of the questionable activities that we observed in the recent special election conducted on July 6.”

Holliday and the Town of Catskill Republican Club did not respond to requests for comment.

The practice of ballot harvesting is legal in the state of New York, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But in states such as North Carolina, returning a ballot on behalf of another person is a felony.

In 10 states, family members are permitted to return a ballot for a voter, and 26 states allow the voter to designate someone to return their ballot for them. Thirteen states do not have a stance on the issue, according to the conference.

The letter was addressed to Greene County Republican Election Commissioner Brent Bogardus and Democratic Election Commissioner Marie Metzler. Tomlinson suggested that allowing the practice created opportunities for corruption alongside an analysis of 313 absentee ballots submitted in the special election. The information in the analysis is public record, Bogardus said.

“The Republican candidate for the trustee office personally ‘handled’ one in five ballots cast in the entire race. Some applications were applied for weeks prior to the ballot being picked up and delivered and 147 of those ballots were delivered to the BOE only two and a half hours before the polls closed on July 6,” Tomlinson wrote.

Holliday defeated Democrat Michelle Williams, 451-369, in the July 6 special election. In-person voting at the polls took place and absentee ballots had to be turned in by 9 p.m. the same day. Williams took an early lead, 315-252, after the polls closed Tuesday, but 265 absentee ballots had yet to be opened and tallied.

Holliday won on the strength of his showing in the absentee ballot count. Bogardus said Holliday had 199 absentee votes to Williams’ 54.

Tomlinson said in a statement that the Democratic Committee’s stance was encapsulated in the letter.

“We have every faith in the Board of Elections to follow election law and assure that all Catskill voters have an equal opportunity to cast their ballots, whether voting by mail, voting early or voting at the polls on Election Day. We support the use of absentee ballots and want to see them used well. That’s why each of our Democratic candidates has pledged not to personally handle absentee ballots in any ballot harvesting operation,” she said in a statement.

Bogardus said the practice is permitted.

“People can designate someone to bring in their application and pick up their ballot and bring it back to them. That’s what people have chosen to do. That’s called personal choice,” he said.

The letter cites an incident of “a ballot purportedly signed and dated by an individual on a date when he was documented on social media to be out of the country,” causing the board to remove the ballot from the count. Bogardus confirmed the ballot’s removal.

“We review documents when they come in, we compare signatures. If there are issues, like in the one case that was cited, then we either agree or disagree not to count a ballot because we want to ensure the integrity of the system. That’s what we’ve always done,” Bogardus said.

In the letter, Tomlinson wrote ballot collection is a practice usually criticized by Republicans.

“This is apparently not the case in Catskill,” she said.

According to the Lawyers Democracy Fund, a nonprofit organization created to “promote social welfare by engaging in activities to promote the role of ethics and legal professionalism in the electoral process,” the practice impacted elections in California and North Carolina in 2016. In California, 5 million absentee ballots were dropped off on Election Day, and in North Carolina, the State Board of Elections refused to certify the 9th Congressional District race results after reporting substantial irregularities in the return of mail ballots. The Charlotte Observer later reported that “McRae Dowless, a consultant to the Republican candidate whose victory was nullified, and his employees illegally harvested hundreds of ballots and discarded those that went against the Republican candidate.”

The fund’s official position does not support ballot harvesting.

“The lack of administrative oversight under vote-by-mail election systems affords too great an opportunity for ballot harvesters to undermine the fairness and honesty of elections and further interfere with the freewill and autonomy of voters who alone have the responsibility to determine who to vote for or whether to vote at all,” the fund said in a statement.

Greene County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Riggs said in a statement she has “every faith” the board will enforce voting laws to their fullest ability.

“With a consistently low turnout every year in Catskill and Greene County, we want folks to know that their vote is important and that their voice matters in local elections. The Catskill Democratic Committee has merely pointed out that in past elections the tactics of ballot harvesting while not illegal in this state, is a highly questionable practice, especially when a candidate on the ballot is doing it,” Riggs said.

Bogardus said the Board of elections will continue its current procedures.

“We’re going to do what we have always done,” Bogardus said.

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