UNDELIVERED: The Broken Promises of NY-22
(WBNG)-- The story of the closest federal race in Upstate New York over the past 100 years starts with a simple question.
“What went wrong in New York 22 this year?”
Unfortunately for residents of the district, it’s a simple question, without any simple answers.
“There’s no easy way to answer that,” said Dustin Czarny (D), an elections commissioner in nearby Onondaga County.
It all began on Election Night, November 3rd, when preliminary results showed Republican Claudia Tenney leading the incumbent representative, Democrat Anthony Brindisi by more than 28k votes.
“We were having conversations in my campaign in the weeks leading up to the election that there’s a good chance we would be down on Election Night,” said Brindisi, who represented the district until the new Congress was seated in January.
However Tenney, who represented the district from 2016-2018, refused to declare victory that night, echoing some of the same arguments she would make three months later.
“We knew there were a lot of absentee ballots out there, and we were continually working with the Boards of Elections to get a grasp on who was returning those,” Tenney told 12 News.
Over the next three months, the nightmares of NY-22 voters would come to life, as error after error came to light.
First was “StickyGate”, the revelation the Oneida County Board of Elections ignored state law and instead of marking individually challenged ballots in ink, officials used quasi permanent sticky notes, which happened to fall off before the ballots could be reviewed.
“It was not a well thought out system,” Czarny said with a laugh.
Czarny said while it was ultimately the wrong decision, it’s one that extends beyond Oneida.
“Taking issue with not writing on the envelope the way the law perscribes, no one does that. We’ve actually been taught not to mark up an envelope.”
Later that November, it was reported multiple counties had made counting errors temporarily giving Brindisi the lead-- only for a new court-ordered count to put Tenney back ahead, this time by 12 votes.
A day later, Chenango County dropped a bombshell, revealing 55 votes had been randomly found more than a month after they were cast, the first but not the only time the county would mysteriously find votes.
Fed up with all the mistakes, State Supreme Court Justice Scott DelConte ordered all 8 district counties to fix their mistakes and produce a legally-accurate canvass.
As December came to a close, more errors were unearthed-- Oneida County failed to follow a 2019 change in election law allowing voters to move and stay registered, resulting in 700 votes being added to the tally, and a boost of Tenney’s lead to 29 votes.
“That was one of the ones that made my hair kind of stand up,” Czarny said.
As the calendar turned the page into 2021, the worst errors were yet to come.
The first week of January, it was revealed the Oneida County BOE failed to properly register up to 2400 voters-- potentially disenfranchising hundreds if not thousands of residents. Even worse, BOE staff testified the county elections commissioners were aware of the problem and chose not to disclose it to anyone. As Justice DelConte notes in one of his rulings, “No one will ever know how many individuals simply walked away from the polling site.”
So how exactly did all of this happen??
“It was a perfect storm of problems in New York 22.”
Luke Perry is a professor of government at Utica College and an expert on this Upstate congressional district. He said some of the problems are due to the unprecedented nature of 2020.
“Difficult circumstances, an historic pademic, an historically close election,” Perry said.
Despite this, Perry said some are due to the unprecedented human error we saw unfold during the race.
“More systematic management problems and issues in regards to how Boards of Elections work throughout New York 22.”
The pandemic created many uncertainties for local BOEs with a wave of never before seen absentee voting.
“This was not just a regular election; no election in 2020 was a regular election,” Czarny said.
In addition, he added changes in election law helped expose many problems that already existed before this race.
“A lot of stuff that was going to be done in 2022 got moved up,” said Czarny, who admitted he likes to stick up for his fellow elections commissioners. “It doesn’t matter who runs Boards of Elections if you don’t have up to date and modernized voting laws.”
Making matters worse, all parties involved agree the state failed to provide the resources to the BOEs to accommodate all of these changes.
“You can’t put additional burdens and unfunded mandates on these local governments and say oh yeah, perform at the same rate,” Tenney said. “A lot of these Boards of Elections are dealing with the same resources they had 20, 30 years ago,” Brindisi added. “Times have changed, laws have changed, and it’s time that’s updated.”
However, the State Supreme Court found the most serious errors, such as disregarding a state law that’s been in place for 3 prior elections, and disenfranchising more than 2400 people, happened in Oneida County, where the buck stops with two people.
“I would expect that we will see one or two resignations by the commissioners,” Perry said.”There is nothing about that that is not troubling,” Czarny explained.
What started with a simple question has now created a new one: not only how do we ensure this never happens again, but how do you restore faith in a broken system?
“All electoral workers need first and foremost to follow the law, and clearly that hasn’t happened in NY-22,” Perry said.
One potential change is through the state legislature, where the state senate has already passed a sweeping series of election reforms.
“One of my concerns is absentee ballots are treated so differently in the counting process,” said State Sen. Rachel May, who represents Madison and parts of Oneida in the congressional district.
May said these reforms, including counting absentee ballots early, creating more transparency in which votes are counted, and increasing voting options, will fix some of the issues brought up in NY-22.
“I think it’s really important people don’t feel like it’s the will of the voters verse the skills of the lawyers.”
Perry suggests changing the requirements needed to become an elections commissioner, hoping to cut down on some of the dysfunction.
“I do hope the state seriously considers moving toward civil service reform for commissioners to address this being a patronage system,” he said.
Another idea is legislation at the federal level in the form of HR 1, a comprehensive voting rights act Brindisi supports, but Tenney does not.
As never-ending as the race may seem, eventually there will be a conclusion, officials will race to find those responsible and hold them accountable, and residents across the district will breathe a sigh of relief, as despite all of the problems we’ve seen, even the perfect storm, eventually runs out of rain.
“I am grateful there’s now a light shone on these irregularities and hopefully that will prompt some action to fix them,” Perry said.
All eight people 12 News spoke with for this piece said they support an investigation into the Oneida County BOE after the race concludes to find out how things went so terribly wrong in the county.