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Monroe County elections officials push back on voting criticisms

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Jeremy Moule
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CITY Newspaper

This year’s primary election occurred under extraordinary circumstances, with a global pandemic upending the traditional voting system. But just as extraordinary was the amount of confusion and problems that surrounded both absentee ballots and in-person voting.

As a result, Republican Elections Commissioner Lisa Nicolay and acting Democratic Elections Commissioner LaShana Boose have come under fire for their management of the election.

During a news conference Thursday, the two elections officials acknowledged that there were problems they will need to address before the November general election, particularly around poll worker training. But they also stood by their work, noting that they faced the compounded challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first year of early voting for primaries, and the fact that they were overseeing three separate elections at once — the Democratic presidential primary; state, local, and congressional primaries; and a special election for a House seat.

The primary was also the first election either commissioner had administered.

“This was a tremendous undertaking and I will say that we and our staff did an excellent job,” Republican Elections Commissioner Lisa Nicolay said during a news conference Thursday.

Several Democratic candidates and officials felt otherwise.

“This was unacceptable, democracy was not served on Tuesday,” Assembly member Harry Bronson said Thursday, adding that the Board of Elections failed at some basic functions, such as making sure voters got the right ballot.

Bronson pulled in about 60 percent of votes cast at polls and leads his opponent Alex Yudelson, chief of staff to Mayor Lovely Warren, by roughly 1,200 votes. The 138th Assembly District contest is still, however, very much in play. As of Wednesday, the Board of Elections had received 5,178 absentee ballots in that race, a number that was already outdated by Thursday morning, when the office received a massive new batch of mail-in ballots.

RELATED Bronson seeks court’s help in counting ballots

On Monday, Bronson filed a pre-emptive lawsuit seeking the impoundment of all machine, affidavit, and mail-in ballots in the race, as well as judicial oversight of ballot counting if needed. A judge didn't issue an order but left Bronson an opportunity to file an amended complaint. Bronson said Thursday that he planned to do so either later in the day or early Friday.

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Credit File photo / CITY Newspaper
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CITY Newspaper
Jeremy Cooney

Jeremy Cooney, who led his opponents Sherita Traywick and Hilda Rosario Escher in the 56th Senate District Democratic primary, also said Thursday that he was concerned about the combination of inexperienced elections commissioners and a shortage of skilled poll workers.

“In November, we need to hire that poll workforce earlier and train them more,” Cooney said. “A quick PowerPoint presentation isn’t going to do it.”

On Tuesday, CITY received complaints about a shortage of Spanish interpreters at some polling stations with high Spanish-speaking populations, about an assigned polling station where a sign posted on the door read “No Voting Here Today,” and about a voter whose polling site didn’t have a ballot with the Assembly and Senate primaries ready for him.

“On behalf of the board, we extend our sincere apology for any mistake or error that occurred by a poll worker at a polling site,” Boose said during a news conference Thursday. “...We understand that this is a very, very serious thing to take on and although we wanted to be perfect, no system is perfect.”

Boose said the commissioners are taking the various issues brought to their attention into account and will use them as “learning lessons on things that we need to improve” to make sure the general election runs smoothly, such as poll worker training and the way that she and Nicolay conduct site visits.

When asked, Boose said she agreed that some poll workers made errors because they weren’t trained well-enough. She and Nicolay each said that training supervisor positions recently created within the office would help better prepare poll workers for the November election.

RELATED Board of Elections positions divide Democratic legislators

The creation of those positions wasn’t without controversy. At the request of Nicolay and Boose, the Monroe County Legislature recently authorized six new supervisory positions within the Board of Elections, including two deputy elections commissioner posts, supervisor of training and recruitment, senior trainer, supervisor of absentee voting, and supervisor of information services.

But some Democratic legislators voted against the measure, arguing that the new positions amounted to patronage jobs the county couldn’t afford. The legislation passed 20-8, with all opposing votes coming from Democrats; one Democratic legislator was absent. County Executive Adam Bello vetoed the legislation, but legislators overruled him in a 20-9 vote; all nine votes supporting the veto came from Democrats.

RELATED Legislators override Bello on elections bill in stinging rebuke

Thursday, Boose and Nicolay also responded to complaints about long lines at polling stations, which they chalked up in part to social distancing efforts.

“I think lines looked longer because...we tried to space people out” Nicolay said.

Nicolay said the commissioners would like to find some larger polling sites for November. But she noted that many places that have hosted polling sites didn’t want to for the primary because of the pandemic. Even school gymnasiums weren’t available.

“We had to work with what was available,” Nicolay said. “Yes, we will definitely try to find bigger spaces because some of the locations that were roomier, it was a better situation.”

But the commissioners’ explanations didn’t satisfy one of their critics, County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, who in a statement called on Boose and Nicolay to resign and for the Democratic and Republican parties to “immediately act to replace them with competent elections administrators.”

In her statement, Barnhart noted that the COVID-19 pandemic created challenges for counties across the state “but news reports indicate only Monroe County and the notoriously-troubled New York City had extensive Primary Day meltdowns.”

“What happened Tuesday was very serious, as it undermined faith in our elections and damaged trust in our democracy,” Barnhart said.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at gfanelli@rochester-citynews.com.