Sunday, October 26, 2014
The stakes were high last November when a team of poll watchers dispatched by the United Monroe citizens group ventured into a banquet hall and medical building where more than 6,000 Kiryas Joel voters would cast ballots.
United Monroe had been campaigning hard for a slate of Town Board candidates running on its ballot line, hoping to wrest control of a deeply unpopular board by outvoting the Hasidic community’s powerful voting blocs. Kiryas Joel’s leaders, meanwhile, had every reason to elect board allies and thwart a nemesis of theirs running in another important contest that day: the race for Orange County executive.
What unfolded in the two polling stations that day sparked new interest in election oversight and suspected voter fraud in Kiryas Joel, longstanding issues that had been out of the headlines and scrutiny of authorities for more than a decade. That rekindled controversy continued through a primary election and lawsuit last month, and soon could extend into another voting showdown looming for the Nov. 4 general election.
The Times Herald-Record documented voter fraud in Kiryas Joel twice in the 1990s and once in 2001, triggering investigations — and, in one case, a stern grand-jury report — but no prosecutions. Village officials responded each time by saying that the number of proven improprieties was paltry and that they didn’t condone them.
United Monroe’s leaders knew about the past problems when preparing for last year's town elections, and wanted its poll watchers in Kiryas Joel to watch voters sign in and challenge those whose signatures looked nothing like the originals — known as exemplars — in the poll books, generally reproduced from voters’ registration cards.
It proved to be a contentious day in Kiryas Joel.
In a series of sworn statements later delivered to authorities, United Monroe members described tense encounters with another group of poll watchers who officially represented different parties but were seemingly aligned against them. They say their adversaries berated and harassed them for questioning mismatched signatures, accusing them of intimidating or disenfranchising voters.
Next came a conflict in August over requests to allow people other than Kiryas Joel residents to work in the village as election inspectors, the paid workers who oversee the poll books, distribute ballots and rule on voter challenges. The Board of Elections initially granted those requests for the Sept. 9 primary but then rescinded them. The spurned inspectors immediately filed a discrimination lawsuit, which ended on an ambiguous note last week as another heated election approaches.
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