6-Vote Margin Forces Hand Recount in Bronx Race (UPDATED)

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William Moore and Verdell Mack at a September 15 press conference alleging irregularities in the polling for their respective Assembly races on Primary Day.

Jarrett Murphy

William Moore and Verdell Mack at a September 15 press conference alleging irregularities in the polling for their respective Assembly races on Primary Day.

UPDATE: Reports indicate that Victor Pichardo won the hand recount on September 22nd by a very small margin. Official results will be announced on September 30, and legal action is still possible after that.

The September 9 primary is ancient history for most of New York. Not so in one Assembly district in the Bronx, where a review of returns from last week’s voting has the candidates just six votes apart and headed for a hand recount on Monday—as the district attorney investigates the veracity of several absentee ballots that could decide the race.

Unofficial returns from the city’s Board of Elections have Hector Ramirez narrowly ahead of Assemblyman Victor Pichardo in the race for a full term representing the 86th district, which covers University Heights, Morris Heights and Mt. Hope in the west central Bronx.

“Every ballot will be reviewed by bipartisan teams of elections officials,” says Michael Ryan, the executive director of the Board of Elections, of Monday’s recount. “The idea is to confirm the scanner readings.”

Officials will look for signs of voter intent that might not have registered on election night. When voters mark the paper ballots that are scanned by the city’s electronic voting machines, they are supposed to fully fill in the circle next to the name of the candidate they want. But some voteres circle the circle or make a mark next to it instead. “The scanner won’t pick that up, but a human being can,” Ryan says.

Observers from both campaigns are expected to be on hand for Monday’s count. So will a representative from the Bronx district attorney’s office who, according to Ryan, “is investigating a matter with respect to absentee ballots that were submitted.” Ryan didn’t name which candidate the ballots were associated with, but both campaigns told CityLimits.org that it’s Ramirez.

Ramirez told us in the days before the election that investigators “just began to call all of my supporters who sent in absentee ballots and [interrogate] them in a back room, posing questions like, ‘Did you complete this ballot? Why are you not voting in person?'”

The Ramirez camp believes the absentee ballots will ultimately give the race to him.

The area was represented by Nelson Castro until he resigned last year in a deal with prosecutors. Pichardo, who has had the backing of the Bronx County Democratic organization, beat Ramirez by just 72 votes amid a crowded field in a special election last September. On the day of that election, some voting machines in the district had broken levers that permitted people to vote for Pichardo but not Ramirez or another chief rival.

Citing last year’s oddities, Ramirez requested federal monitors for this year’s election—a call Pichardo seconded. Both campaigns suspected the other would try to cheat. No monitors were posted. The day after the primary, Pichardo complained about “all the dirty tactics my opponent deployed to intimidate voters on Election Day.”

Ironically, Castro’s legal saga ended the next day. Busted in 2009 for allegedly perjuring himself during an investigation into—wait for it—election irregularities, Castro began wearing a wire for investigators and helped them catch Assemblyman Eric Stevenson taking bribes.

The 86th district isn’t the only place where the 2014 primary didn’t fade quietly into the night. Losing candidates in the 77th and 85th districts charged last Monday that their opponents’ vote totals appeared to have been inflated, and called on U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to investigate.

Verdell Mack placed last with 6 percent of the vote in the four-way 77th district race won by Latoya Joyner with a decisive 69 percent. William Moore, who was bested 75 percent to 25 percent by incumbent Marcos Crespo in the 85th. Volunteers for Mack told of being prevented from checking that voting machines were set to zero at the beginning of the day at one site or from observing the count at the end of the day at another, while an ally of Moore’s said he’d seen palmcards for Crespo on the sign-in table at one voting site until a police officer ordered them removed.

Mack’s volunteers also claim that the vote counts reported by poll workers for their candidate dropped mysteriously during the day.

Ryan said none of those complaints had reached him. Ryan said there’d be no explanation for such a fall in vote counts, and that poll workers couldn’t manipulate the vote counts except by removing the permanent memory device, or PMD, from each voting machine.

The PMDs are exactly what Moore and Mack want Bharara to take a look at. The critics promised an “active write-in” campaign for their candidates in November.

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