Allegations of election fraud in a too-close-to-call Bronx Assembly race could mean voters will be waiting several more weeks for an official outcome.
The hotly contested race, between incumbent Democrat Victor Pichardo and his opponent, district leader Hector Ramirez, was easily the closest race in the Democratic primary two weeks ago, with Ramirez holding an 11-vote lead over Pichardo, 1,764 to 1,753, according to an unofficial tally from the New York City Board of Elections (BOE). Because of the remarkably slim margin of victory, per state law, the Board of Elections started conducting a full manual recount on Monday.
"In any contest where less than a million votes are cast, and the margin of victory falls within one half of one percent or less than 10 votes, the commissioner's procedure is to have the local office engage in a full hand recount of all votes cast in that particular jurisdiction," said Michael Ryan, the executive director of the city Board of Elections. "The reason for that policy is that the voter machines, do not capture voter intent in circumstances where a voter fails to properly affix or properly darken the oval on the ballot. To make sure that we have an absolute 100 percent accurate tally, we are now in the process of reviewing the ballots to ensure voter intent."
However, the results of that recount still might not determine a winner--if allegations of election fraud brought by Pichardo and the Bronx Democratic Party against Ramirez hold up in court. At the root of the complaint are 43 absentee ballots a Ramirez staffer submitted to the Board of Elections that may have been fraudulently obtained.
Pichardo and his attorney, Stanley Schlein, the longtime litigator for the Bronx Democratic machine, allege that the individuals tasked with obtaining and filing absentee ballots for the 43 voters, may not have had proper authorization. Sources familiar with the nature of the complaint, say that one of the Ramirez staffers who dropped off the ballots in question at the Board of Elections branch in the Bronx, had asked for two of the ballots back because they did not have the signature of the person authorizing the individual to file the ballot for them.
Multiple sources say the exchange with the Ramirez staffer led someone at the Board of Elections to inform the Bronx Democratic Party that there may be some irregularities with some of the absentee ballots cast for Ramirez. The county Democrats, in turn, filed an official complaint with the Bronx district attorney's office. The Bronx DA's office acknowledged that they received a complaint regarding the Pichardo-Ramirez election, but declined to give further details on the source or nature of the referral, citing the office's policy on not commenting on pending investigations.
Ramirez's legal team has countered the allegations brought by Pichardo and the county Democrats, by stating that their absentee ballot operation was legitimate, and that the only reason that Schlein filed a formal complaint with the Bronx DA is to bolster their chances at winning the recount. Ramirez's camp said that by demonstrating that the 43 absentee ballots cast for Ramirez are invalid Schlein could effectively swing the outcome of the race in Pichardo's favor.
"The Bronx county organization is using the complaint made to the Bronx district attorney’s office as if it were proof of something, but the only thing it is proof of is that somebody brought a complaint to the Bronx district attorney," said Sarah Steiner, the attorney representing the Ramirez campaign. "What’s interesting is that in their papers, they tell the court about the complaint, indicating that they brought the complaint to the district attorney, as the DA's office itself would not have been able to discuss an ongoing investigation. So what’s clear to me is that the county organization made the complaint in order to use it as a tool to create an impression that there’s fraud where there is none."
Schlein did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did the Bronx Democratic Party immediately respond to a request for comment. Pichardo, in a statement, deferred to the Board of Elections and DA's office to determine a final outcome in the race.
“The voters of the 86th Assembly district deserve to have the integrity of this race protected," Pichardo said. "I am confident that the Board of Elections and the appropriate legal authorities are working diligently to ensure that the outcome of this election is both honest and accurate."
The underlying narrative to the Pichardo-Ramirez recount and legal battle is the involvement of the Bronx Democratic Party, which dovetails with the ignominious recent history of the 86th Assembly seat. When former assemblyman Luis Diaz resigned in 2008 to take a position in the Paterson administration, Ramirez was one of a handful of candidates vying for the seat, and many assumed that Ramirez would be the one to get the support of the county Democrats given that Diaz voiced support for Ramirez early on in the race, virtually sealing his fate as Diaz's eventual successor. Instead, the county organization went with Nelson Castro, a relative unknown, who would become the first Dominican-born member of the Assembly after beating Ramirez in 2008.
The county party's decision to back Castro was one of many that led to the borough's "Rainbow Rebels"--led by Assemblyman Carl Heastie and then-assemblyman (now Bronx Borough President) Ruben Diaz Jr.--seizing control of the party from Assemblyman Jose Rivera.
Castro, meanwhile served in the Assembly with little distinction before resigning in April 2013, after he was revealed to have been a federal informant in a corruption case that brought down fellow Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson. Ironically, the original corruption allegation that led to Castro wearing a wire for the FBI, was another election-related fraud charge, after evidence emerged that ten people were registered to vote from Castro's one-bedroom apartment. After an investigation from the Bronx DA's office resulted in a perjury charge for Castro, in relation to the voter registration fraud, Castro agreed to become a federal informant.
When the time came for the Bronx Democrats to choose a candidate to replace Castro in 2013, the organization anointed Pichardo as its preferred candidate, snubbing Ramirez, despite his popularity as a longtime district leader and previous support from Heastie, Diaz Jr. and many other key members of the party. Ramirez has not been shy about blasting the Bronx establishment during the campaign.
The current legal battle over the validity of absentee ballots also marks the second year in a row that voting irregularities were alleged by a campaign in the 86th district. During the 2013 election, Ramirez was one of a handful of candidates that lost to Pichardo who also called for major investigations into the Board of Elections and the Bronx Democratic Party after many reported instances of questionable voting practices throughout the district. Most notably, a photo circulated of a voting booth showing the vote levers missing for all the candidates but Pichardo and one unknown candidate, as well as allegations that Pichardo's mother, who was hired by the Bronx Democratic Party as a poll worker at the highest voter-turnout polling site in the district, was steering voters away after supposedly not finding their names in the registration book.
An ex-campaign treasurer of Pichardo's, Carlos Morales, later alleged that Pichardo left the city in July after learning he was about to be served papers in a case challenging his questionable petition signatures, and that campaign staffers were paid without using proper paperwork.
The allegations of election fraud will not prohibit the Board of Elections from conducting its manual recount of the Pichardo-Ramirez race. The goal of the handcount process is to determine "voter intent," meaning that a bipartisan group of BOE staffers will count the ballots, looking for where machines may have made a mistake in reading a ballot that was not properly filled out. Ryan said that representatives from both campaigns will be witnesses to the handcount process, as well as representatives from the Bronx DA's office, who have been provided with copies of all of the necessary documents to proceed with their investigation by the Board of Elections.
As of Tuesday, roughly one-third of the Pichardo-Ramirez ballots had been recounted, according to a Board of Elections spokesman.
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