NY-20 Recount Takes a Turn for the Absurd
By Keith Richburg
NEW YORK --The ongoing, nip-and-tuck battle for New York's 20th District Congressional seat continued today, with the latest Board of Elections tally showing the Democrat, Scott Murphy, with an 86-vote lead over Republican Jim Tedisco.
But the contest, which now is being waged over which absentee ballots to count, took a turn for the absurd when the Republicans challenged the ballot of the district's popular favorite daughter, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), whose former House seat is on the line.
Tedisco representatives in Columbia County argued that Gillibrand was in the district on Election Day, March 31, and could have voted in person, rendering her absentee ballot invalid. Gillibrand was indeed in the district, doing some last minute campaigning with Murphy.
The election was held after Gillibrand was appointed to take Hillary Clinton's seat in the Senate, and the race quickly became a referendum on President Obama's economic policies, and particularly his $787 billion stimulus bill, which the Democrat strongly endorsed and the Republican opposed.
Challenging the former senator's ballot appeared to illustrate the Republicans' aggressive approach in this protracted recount phase, a painstaking county-by-county canvass of absentee, overseas and military ballots, during which poll watchers from both sides can request that ballots they deem questionable be set aside. Some independent analysts said the tactic showed "desperation."
"This is part of their larger attempt to disenfranchise legal Democratic voters and delay the inevitable Democratic victory in the 20th," said Gillibrand spokesman Bethany Lesser. She said Gillibrand was in the district on Election Day, but not in Columbia County, where she resides when not in Washington.
Besides, Lesser said, the law says only that a voter must "intend" to be out of the area on election day in order to vote absentee.
Gillibrand penned an op-ed for the Huffington Post entitled "Let My Vote And Every Vote Be Counted," in which she said, "Today the Republicans stooped to a new low by challenging my ballot challenging my ballot. The Republicans' challenge is frivolous and without merit."
"National Republicans are trying to turn the 20th District of New York into the next Minnesota," she said, referring to the seemingly never-ended U.S. Senate race between Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken. "It is wrong," she said.
Countered Tedisco campaign spokesman Tyler Brown: "Representatives from the campaign are raising concerns on those ballots that may have been improperly cast, regardless of who they belong to. Ultimately, those concerns and others will be answered by the judge so that we can reach a fair and final outcome to this election."
Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at City University's Baruch College, who has family ties to the district, said the Republicans "are desperate. They sold it as a referendum on Obama and his policies. They poured money into it. [GOP Chairman Michael] Steele visited it. They considered that a key race, and they don't want to lose it."
"They'd challenge everything, and when they finish with the political process, they'll go with the judiciary," Muzzio said. "I think they're going to fight this one to the bitter end."
The election board's latest updated count, including those absentee, paper ballots already counted, show Murphy, a former venture capitalist, with 79,105 votes, and Tedisco, the former Republican leader in the state assembly, with 79,019.
On election night, Murphy also held a slight lead over Tedisco, just 59 votes.
Experts on elections and politics said so far the counting of the absentee ballots is confirming a general rule; that absentee votes, which are paper ballots, almost always follow the trend established on election day, where voters cast ballots by machine.
It was once widely believed that absentee voters were more Republican, and GOP officials held out hope that would prove the case in this race. But experts said that old rule hardly holds true today -- if it ever did.
"What we're seeing is essentially what we saw on election night," said Steven Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena (College) Research Institute's New York poll. "The general rule of thumb is that the paper essentially follows the machines. There's no reason the paper ballots will be all that different from the machines on election day."
The main trend being established is that Murphy is doing well in his strongholds, and performing better-than-expected in Tedisco's Republican base areas, particularly Saratoga County, a GOP stronghold.
In Saratoga, Tedisco won absentee ballots counted so far by 672 to 509 -- a 163 vote difference. But that advantage was nearly offset by Murphy's strong showing in Washington and Warren counties, which Murphy won by 81 votes and 58 votes respectively.
Meanwhile, while challenging Gillibrand and scores of other Democratic voters, the Republican camp accused the Democrats of trying to challenge GOP votes.
Today, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sent out a fundraising letter for Tedisco, saying only a handful of votes separate the two, and asking for support. "Nancy Pelosi and the D.C. Democrats have sent in a team of attorneys to challenge Republican absentee ballots," Giuliani wrote. "They will not rest until the election results show a victory for Jim's Democrat opponent. Their plan is to win at all costs!"
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