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In tight local races, focus is on absentee ballots

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A lawsuit promised last week by attorneys for Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) to secure a full hand recount of the paper ballots cast in the 1st Congressional District race on Election Day has not yet been filed, according to Bishop spokesman Jon Schneider.

A separate suit filed by Assemblyman Marc Alessi (D-Shoreham) Nov. 8, seeking to impound the voting machines and obtain a hand recount, has been adjourned on consent till the end of the month, according to Alessi attorney Steven Schlesinger of Garden City. The parties were due in court Nov. 15.

The Bishop and Alessi camps are now both focused on the absentee ballots, which — numbering more than 10,000 in the congressional race so far and more than 2,000 in the assembly contest — could well decide both races.

Workers at the Suffolk County Board of Elections in Yaphank yesterday began tallying the 1st CD’s absentee ballots. About 13,000 of them were issued by the BOE. State law gives military and overseas ballots until Nov. 24 to arrive in Yaphank, though they must be postmarked by Nov. 1.

The counting of absentee ballots is a tedious process, County Legislator Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham) said  in a phone interview Tuesday.

“You go through every ballot one at a time,” Losquadro said. “About the only thing no one ever objects to is military ballots,” he said. “If they’re willing to get shot at for us, no one should object to their votes.”

Indeed, representatives of Bishop’s challenger, Randy Altschuler (R-St. James) yesterday even objected to absentee ballots cast by Bishop’s parents from their home in Florida, according to Schneider.

Absentee ballot counting in the congressional race will continue at the BOE the rest of this week. Workers won’t begin counting absentee ballots in the assembly race until some time next week, after the count in the congressional race is finished, Losquadro said.

The decision to pursue a hand count of the voting machine ballots will be made after that, according to Alessi attorney Schlesinger.

“It has to be close enough to justify it,” Schlesinger said Tuesday. “Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.”

The voting machine results have Altschuler ahead of Bishop by 383 votes and Losquadro ahead of Alessi by 892 votes.  Election results phoned in to the BOE on election night put Bishop ahead of Altschuler by 3,461 votes and Losquadro ahead of Alessi by 40 votes. That changed when the voting machines’ electronic data was downloaded to BOE computers on Nov. 5, prompting Bishop and Alessi to call for a hand count of the machine ballots.

Altschuler spokesman Rob Ryan said last week the swing in the vote tally was merely the result of poll inspectors not knowing how to read the vote reports generated by the new optical scanning machines after the polls closed. The BOE should follow the procedure set out in state law, Ryan said.

Election law mandates  an automatic initial audit of 3 percent of randomly chosen polling machines in county-wide. The Suffolk BOE began the 3 percent audit — 43 voting machines in total — last Monday. As of yesterday, with audits completed on 20 of those machines, no significant errors have been uncovered, according to election officials. State election law requires the expansion of the random audit if the hand counting discloses significant discrepancies. However, the law gives the BOE and the courts discretion to order a full hand count regardless of the audit, Bishop’s attorneys noted.

Bishop’s attorney, Thomas Garry of Uniondale, said last Wednesday a lawsuit demanding the hand count would be filed “in a few days.”  His statement came after a 45-minute conference in the chambers of Suffolk County Supreme Court justice Peter Mayer with attorneys for Altschuler and the county’s election commissioners. The conference was requested by the Bishop camp to seek an agreement on a recount, which wasn’t reached. (See Nov. 10 story.)