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Board reviews election procedures

During the early voting cycle, a voter saw someone throw out manila envelopes at the Suffolk registrar’s office and raised concern about possible ballots being thrown out along with them, but it was quickly determined that there were only sample ballots, along with the envelopes themselves.

The Suffolk Electoral Board heard this during its review of the 2020 election at its Jan. 5 meeting, held by teleconference due to COVID-19.

“We had a complaint that someone saw a worker, an officer of election, dumping some manila folders into the trash can in front of the office, and that individual called the office,” Electoral Board Secretary Beverly Outlaw said. “And we had to go out and remove the trash that had been done, and redo that because the concern was, as I understood it, that votes had been discarded.”

Outlaw noted that the board had implemented an operational procedure to hand ballots to voters in manila folders so that the voter had a place to put the ballot. The voter could either keep them or throw them out. Many, she said, chose to throw out the manila folders.

“We found no discarded voting material in the trash can,” Outlaw said. “We found sample ballots, and we found the manila folders that we had given people.”

Outlaw said it was the only serious complaint about the election that she received.

“We communicated that to the individual who complained. But that was a serious accusation, so I wanted the board to be aware of it, and to know that the measures that we took to review it and to look at it, so we did have that incident that occurred.”

Director of Elections and General Registrar Susan Saunders supervised the review of the trash can.

In the city, 30,317 of its 67,917 eligible voters had voted prior to Election Day — 22,301 voting in person and another 8,016 who voted by mail as of Nov. 1.

On Election Day, Nov. 3, poll watchers at several precincts reported having difficulty carrying out their duties, according to Miller Cary, vice chairman of the city’s Republican Party.

But there, too, were concerns about access to ballot machines by Republican poll watchers.

At the Wilroy precinct — located at Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School — Cary said that their poll watcher was denied entry before voting was to begin at 6 a.m.

“He walked in and was trying to see the machines,” Cary said. “He had his authorization form with him, and he was kicked out.”

Cary said the poll watcher tried to explain that he needed to check the machines before voting started, but was told he had to leave and could not come back until 7 a.m., an hour after the polls were to open. A few minutes after the polls opened, however, the poll watcher was allowed back inside, but where they allowed him to sit “did not allow for meaningful observation,” said Cary, noting that this happened at other city precincts.

Part of checking the machines, Cary said, included checking the zero tape, along with inspecting the voting machines to verify that the count is at zero, checking that locks and/or seals are in place and recording serial numbers.

He said that when he showed up at the Wilroy precinct a few minutes after the polls had opened, he observed the poll watcher trying to put a chair 20 feet back, but was told he couldn’t do that.

While Cary and election officials tried to work through the issue, the poll watcher returned to the designated area, and, after first being refused when he asked to speak to Saunders, he was later able to do so, but was not able, he said, to clarify that a poll watcher was able to observe from outside one designated area.

“The issue of social distancing kept coming up,” Cary said. “I explained that we were actually conforming to six feet, to wearing a mask, that we were not trying to observe anyone privately marking their ballot, but (as) part of the observation process, my poll watcher should have, other than those restrictions, unrestricted access to be able to move about freely.”

He said Saunders told him that an Electoral Board member would come out, and board chairwoman Erin Rice did.

Cary said unobserved voting went on for two hours, including several voters going through without any address verification. He said there was better compliance at other precincts as Election Day went on, but he said he had to continue explaining what he was allowed to do.

“There seemed to be a lot of misunderstanding about the role of a poll watcher and just what needed to be watched,” Cary said. “It was beyond an incidental thing. It was more of a systemic problem. I guess giving the best benefit of the doubt, there was just a lot of misunderstanding about what a poll watcher should be able to do.”

Cary said a poll watcher at the Airport precinct at Suffolk Executive Airport was not allowed to check a machine before voting started. He also said that at some precincts, including at the Harbour View precinct, observers were set up in a way that did not allow them to physically observe and verify addresses against voter rolls.

Rice said she heard similar complaints to the ones from Cary, and not just at the Wilroy precinct.

“There may be a misunderstanding as to what a poll watcher is there to do and what they are allowed to do,” Rice said. “There are some very seasoned chiefs that did not understand that they could be there when the polls opened.”

Rice also heard complaints about poll watchers not being able to see what they were to observe.

“I know we have to observe social distancing, and there are some that did way more than six feet, and they put them significantly behind,” Rice said. “It’s a crowded gym — the acoustics are horrible so they can’t really hear anything. They’re 20 feet behind. Some of our precincts do not allow for them to be but so close.

“It was almost like a hostile experience as the election worker thought they were there to observe something wrong. I will say there were a couple (of) incidents with poll watchers who were not masked. And I addressed that …  to make sure that those poll watchers put their masks on. There was that issue as well, so if we’re going to hold our election workers to the mask policy, we need to do it with the poll watchers as well.”

Outlaw said more education is needed for poll workers. In her 13 years on the Electoral Board, she said she had not seen so many poll watchers as she had in the most recent election.

“Some of our officers did not handle it correctly,” Outlaw said.

She noted the issue with space at the Harbourview precinct at the North Suffolk Public Safety Center and said the board should look at the city’s precincts to address the spacing issue.

“I was expecting to hear something about Harbourview, because we barely have room there for our election officials,” Outlaw said. “And we were really concerned about how we were going to be able to accommodate observers and even people who came to vote. And we discussed that with the city prior to the election, and looking at alternatives. But we do have some really … cozy precincts where it’s really hard to do that.”

Rice said there’s a document sent to the political parties outlining what poll watchers can and cannot do, but “I don’t know that if that’s ever been shared with our officers of election.”

There was also confusion on whether poll watchers had access to a tape or a count of votes. At the Booker T. Washington Elementary School precinct, Cary said the poll watcher who had been locked in with the election officials after the polls closed was not allowed to view the count, but after being asked whether the poll worker had asked for the tape or the count, he said he would have to check on that. He said poll watchers at other precincts were able to get the tape.

“I’m concerned about that,” Outlaw said. “The tape is not to be given out. If someone received the tape, then that’s something else we need to educate people about. But certainly, they received the count and are able to take a look at the count that the person’s calling in, but not receiving the tape.”

Cary said it had been somewhat of a standard practice in the past for poll watchers to get a printout of the tape, something Outlaw said she’d have to check with the state board of elections just to make sure everyone is on the same page.

He also expressed concern about not being able to communicate effectively with Saunders to rectify Election Day issues.

“Maybe it’s a situation where Susan, and those other members of the board, we get together and figure out, if there’s a complaint like this to happen at a precinct, what is the process that needs to happen,” Rice said. “Who is the first call? I know Susan and her staff are extremely busy on Election Day.

“And so the board members, maybe they can funnel those complaints. Maybe that’s how we do it. But I think any complaint that comes in will be addressed by the Electoral Board or the registrar’s office. That was one of many that we heard that day, and we’re kind of triaging the response.”