COLUMBIA COUNTY, NY JUDGE ORDERS ALL ABSENTEE BALLOTS OPENED IN SECOND-HOME OWNERS’/DUAL RESIDENTS’ CASE—LANDMARK VICTORY FOR VOTERS AND DEMOCRATIC PARTY
Joyce Thompson, a candidate for the Taghkanic Town Board and a party to these proceedings, expressed the feeling of many when she commented, “Congratulations to all of the stalwart challenged voters who stood tall, were not intimidated and kept faith in the judicial system to preserve their legal right to vote in Taghkanic."
Virginia Martin, BOE Commissioner and a defendant in the original action, stated “At last, a simple process that should have been concluded fully two months ago—the counting of county residents’ legitimately cast votes—is completed. Taghkanic’s duly elected officials can finally take office and get to work doing the people’s business. This delay has cost the taxpayers dearly and has brought an embarrassing and ill-deserved cloud over this county’s electoral process. I’m enormously relieved that, at last, we can move on. We have other work to do.”
Today’s ruling was the culmination of over two months of often contentious legal proceedings between the local Republican and Democratic parties, the BOE and the candidates of the Town of Taghkanic, which included a decision on December 18, 2009 by the Appellate Division, 3rd Dept., in favor of the Democrats. That decision found, among other things, that 1) the law governing a voter’s right to choose where to vote is construed broadly in favor of the voter, and 2) the Republicans had no authority to challenge absentee ballot applications on the basis of residency once the ballots had been issued by the BOE to voters. On December 30, acting Supreme Court Judge Nichols granted the Republicans one last opportunity to challenge these ballots on grounds other than residency. At today’s hearing, the Judge reprimanded Mr. Walsh for failing to follow his specific instructions to note his objections in detail. While he limited the nature of Mr. Walsh’s objections, the Judge did allow him one final opportunity to orally specify his objections voter by voter. As it turned out, all but three of Mr. Walsh’s objections were for dual residency and the judge overruled each and every objection and ordered all of the ballots to be opened.
The result was very fortuitous for the Taghkanic Democrats as they came from behind to win all four contested races: two Town Council seats, Town Justice and Highway Superintendent.
What rankled many residents (Democrats and Republicans) in this rural county is that only Democratic-registered dual residents were challenged by the Republicans—a clear attempt to intimidate and suppress their vote.
Chris Nolan, Chair of the CCDC and a respondent in these proceedings, stated “I am extremely gratified by this decision because it confirms what we have said all along—that dual residents have the perfect right to vote from the legitimate residence of their choice. This decision has far-reaching implications for dual residents all around the state and puts a big dent in state Republicans’ plans to intimidate and disenfranchise Democratic voters this November.”
Kathleen O’Keefe, counsel for Chris Nolan, Chair of the CCDC, and the Taghkanic Democratic slate of candidates, summarized the two-month-long ordeal: “Once again, the Republican Party has decided that the way to win elections is to suppress the votes of people deemed unsupportive of their plans, in this case, in Columbia County. Unfortunately for them, a brave contingent of local people rallied to defend the right of voters to vote in Columbia County. Hopefully, this case will discourage similar efforts to illegally disenfranchise voters throughout New York State. We can only hope that that is the case."
The respondents are indebted to their legal counsel, Kathleen O’Keefe, and Dan Burstein, of Willkie Farr & Gallagher, for conducting a brilliant legal campaign that resulted in this momentous decision.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has joined the Appellate Division in reaffirming the established voting rights of dual residents and recognizing that these challenges were entirely frivolous," said Burstein, who represents Commissioner Martin. "This is a victory for voting rights and a rejection of this attempt to do through misinformation, intimidation, and abusive litigation what could not be done through the law: disenfranchise dual residents."
This decision follows on the heels of another ground-breaking decision last Thursday by Supreme Court Judge Patrick McGrath in favor of a citizens’ group in Taghkanic (several of whom were involved in this lawsuit) which permanently enjoined 1) Taghkanic resident Alan Wilzig from paving or using his mile-long, 40-foot wide racetrack, and 2) the Town of Taghkanic, its various town, planning and zoning boards, and other local enforcement officials, from issuing any kind of permit, certificate or approval allowing the racetrack.
There, as here, ordinary citizens had to do the job that local town and county officials should have done on their behalf.
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Read More:Absentee ballots sway Columbia County elections on WNYT-13
November Election Finally Decided in Taghkanic in The Columbia Paper