Rep. Tim Bishop plans to file a lawsuit today to compel the Suffolk County Board of Elections to conduct a hand recount of the paper ballots in the First Congressional District election, RiverheadLOCAL has learned.
"People need to know that elections are 100 percent accurate," Bishop spokesman Jon Schneider said Monday evening. "We can't have confidence in the accuracy of the results in this election unless we count the paper ballots."
It's been a wild ride in New York's First Congressional District since the polls closed at 9 p.m. on Nov. 2. Bishop, the incumbent Democrat, and his Republican challenger Randy Altschuler were neck and neck in the unofficial reported results all night. Long delays in reporting meant the last districts weren't counted until the early morning hours Wednesday morning.
When it was over, Bishop was leading Altschuler by 3,461 votes, 50.96 percent to 49.04 percent. With nearly 10,000 absentee ballots issued and in play in such a close race, Bishop did not declare victory and Altschuler did not concede defeat.
Two days later, an initial re-canvassing resulted in a huge increase in the reported votes for Altschuler, and put him 383 votes ahead of Bishop.
Such a dramatic swing is unprecedented, Schneider said.
"You would expect human error in misreporting or data entry to break somewhat evenly, with about half the mistakes favoring one candidate and half favoring the other," he said. Instead, the re-canvassing pumped up Altschuler's numbers by about 4,000 votes, wiping away Bishop's lead. "Clearly something is not right."
Accuracy of new voting system questioned
This month's election was the first general election in which a new voting system was deployed in Suffolk County. The mechanical voting booths that had been used for many years were replaced with paper ballots and optical scanners.
Voters cast a vote by marking a circle next to a candidate's name on the ballot. The scanners read the paper ballots and tabulate the votes for each candidate on every line in every race. After scanning, the paper ballots are dropped into plastic bags in each machine, which are sealed upon removal and transported back to BOE headquarters in Yaphank.
After the polls closed last Tuesday, each election district's optical scanner generated a printout of the tabulated results for that election district. The printed report was then read by the election district's poll inspectors — one Democrat and one Republican —and the numbers on the printout were phoned in to BOE headquarters. There, BOE workers inputted the numbers into the BOE's computers.
On Friday, the data from each scanner was downloaded directly to computers at BOE headquarters, disclosing the 4,000-vote difference in the Bishop-Altschuler tally and leaving Suffolk County elections officials trying to figure out what happened and why.
Bishop immediately called for a hand count of all paper ballots. The hand count could begin right away if the Republican elections commissioner, Wayne Rogers, would agree to it, Schneider said. The Republicans are not consenting to the hand count, according to Schneider, so Bishop is going to ask a judge to order it.
"When Altschuler was down in the tally, he was calling for a recount," Schneider said. "Now he's saying we should count the absentee ballots first and see where we stand before deciding whether to do a hand count [of the paper ballots from the machines]. We don't agree. Every ballot cast on Election Day must be accurately counted. People need to have faith in the system and that's the only way they're going to get it, given these circumstances," Schneider said. "The paper backup was the very reason why these machines were chosen by the county in the first place," Schneider said.
Phone and email messages to the Altschuler campaign have not been returned.
Poll inspectors confused by scanner reports?
One veteran Riverhead Republican poll inspector, who spoke to RiverheadLOCAL on the condition of anonymity, said she saw confusion among poll inspectors at her polling station when it came time to read the printouts generated by the scanners. Numbers of votes cast for each candidate on each party line were printed on the report, along with a tally of each candidate's total votes. Some poll inspectors were reading the individual party line numbers as the total votes cast, she said.
"You have to remember this is going on at 10 o'clock at night, after we've been there all day since five in the morning. People are tired to begin with, and this was something new and radically different," she said. Poll inspectors did receive training on the new system, she said, but "there was bound to be some confusion the first time around."
Could that account for the major difference between the results reported last Tuesday and the data downloaded on Friday?
Maybe or maybe not, according to a source at the Board of Elections, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It could be a problem with the software, too," he said.
The Board of Elections will not comment on the status of the race, due to pending litigation.
Alessi also wants a hand count
Democratic Assemblyman Marc Alessi, who, according to election night tallies was down by 40 votes in his race against Republican County Legislator Dan Losquadro, saw his deficit increase to nearly 900 votes after the data was downloaded in the initial re-canvassing Friday. He is worried about the accuracy of the new machines, he said.
"I am growing more concerned by the day with the new voting machines that went into use this year," Alessi said. "Never have there been such wide swings in reporting between election night results and the re-canvass results. I am also concerned with the stories I have heard since Election Day of machines across the North Fork shutting down and having other problems," he said.
Like Bishop, Alessi wants a hand count of all ballots.
"The accuracy of these machines is untested, and the preliminary results have been less then stellar thus far. In the end, I want to ensure that the will of the people has been accurately recorded, and thus far I am not convinced," he said.
Problems with new voting system in other counties
The same optical scanner machines were used in other counties this month and are at the center of controversy in a handful of other extremely close contests.
Widespread machine breakdowns were reported throughout Westchester County, with the reporting of results in two tight races stalled by machine failures. Incumbent Democratic Assemblyman Robert Castelli, called the machines "a nightmare" and "a bloody mess," according to the White Plains CitizeNet Reporter, a news website. Both the Democratic and Republican elections commissioners in White Plains have called for the replacement of the optical scanners with touch-screen voting devices, the website reported.
Control of the State Senate hangs in the balance, with the outcome of three State Senate races — one in Nassau, one in Westchester and one in Erie and Niagra counties — still uncertain.
Random audit now underway in Suffolk
Meanwhile, Suffolk elections officials are conducting a "routine" audit of the results by comparing paper ballots to machine reports for 3 percent of randomly chosen machines. If the paper ballots in those 43 machines are consistent with the machine tabulations, the re-canvassing results reported on Friday will be considered accurate by the BOE. If there is a deviation of more than 2 percent, the BOE will then hand count another randomly selected 172 machines, or 12 percent of the total number. If more inconsistencies are uncovered they are required by law to conduct a full hand count.
The initial random audit began yesterday. No findings have yet been reported.
Click here to see photo slideshow of workers at Suffolk Board of Elections auditing paper ballots and preparing to count absentee ballots Nov. 9.