City Council candidate Brian Cunningham has vowed to take legal action against his opponent, Councilmember Mathieu Eugene, after two dozen or so reports of misconduct—including voter suppression, intimidation and electioneering—at various District 40 polling sites popped up on Facebook and Twitter or were reported to the Cunningham campaign.
Tensions were running high in District 40 on Election Day, where despite the cold and the rain, volunteers from both camps could be spotted huddled under umbrellas, handing out blue and red flyers bearing their respective candidates’ names and faces, about 100 feet from every polling location in the area.
That distance—100 feet—really matters. It is the basis for one of the claims city council challenger Cunningham, who was running on the Reform line, levied against Eugene on Tuesday: electioneering.
According to the Board of Elections, “electioneering means distributing, wearing, or carrying political literature, posters, banners, or buttons, or soliciting votes. Electioneering is prohibited within 100 feet of the polling site entrance.” This means that a candidate who is up for election cannot be inside a polling site unless he is casting his own vote.
While not all accounts shared on Facebook and Twitter by the community are verifiable, several photographs show Eugene inside multiple polling locations at different times throughout the day. According to photographs and reports from poll watchers, volunteers, staff and voters, Eugene was seen inside P.S. 249 several times in the morning and evening, and in P.S. 217 in the afternoon. Eugene cast his ballot at P.S. 249 at around 8 p.m. This reporter witnessed volunteers for Eugene being asked to move further away from P.S. 249.
Gideon Hess, a poll watcher for the Cunningham campaign, was stationed at P.S. 249 and witnessed Eugene electioneering inside the voting area.
“He came in around 8 a.m., and I thought he was coming in to vote. But he walked around for maybe half an hour and never cast a ballot,” he said. “He spoke to some people, shook some hands, and left.” Hess said that Eugene reappeared at P.S. 249 in the evening around 8PM, chatting and shaking hands again, but this time casting his ballot.
Evens (declined to share his last name) was a poll watcher for Eugene at P.S. 249 and confirmed that Eugene had been inside the building several times. “He’s been back and forth from here all day,” he said, adding “Brian Cunningham was here too.” When asked what time he had seen Cunningham inside the school, he said “around six or 6:30AM.”
However, several members of Cunningham’s staff confirmed that he was at his campaign office that morning past 7AM. Said Cunningham via text, “If I was there, where are the pictures?”
Evens’ claims echo those of his boss. Councilman Eugene took to Twitter on Tuesday evening claim his opponent was actually in the wrong: “It is unfortunate that my opponent is accusing me of illegal campaign practices, while he himself has gone to several polling sites….”
When asked how the Cunningham campaign would pursue legal action in regards to claims of Eugene’s electioneering and voter suppression, Joyce David, an election attorney working with Cunningham, said, “we’re still reviewing all our options, and what avenue to take.”
While photos are a straightforward way to collect evidence of possible electioneering, the more condemning claims of voter suppression, however, are less cut and dry.
Over a dozen District 40 voters came forward on social media to question why they were told by poll workers to vote straight down the Democratic line. Others say there were told if they didn’t vote straight down the line, their vote wouldn’t count. Many contacted the Cunningham campaign or local press.
Ian Allen, a personal trainer and Prospect Lefferts Gardens resident, reached out to this reporter independently via email. “They were instructing everybody to vote straight down the Democratic ticket,” he wrote. Via phone, he said he witnessed a poll worker instruct three or four people other than himself to vote straight down the party line, or their ballot would be voided. This same poll worker assisted Allen in the same way, he said.
“He asked which party I was registered with, and when I said I was a Democrat he pointed out the party line on the ticket and said to vote straight down it or it would be voided,” Allen said. “He was doing that to everyone. It was not subtle.” He said he reported this to the supervisor on site, coordinator Rupert Alleyne.
Alleyne remembered the incident. He said Allen “was simply a disgruntled voter.” Alleyne used a blank ballot to point out what he said was the poll worker’s mistake: a ballot would be voided if you vote for a candidate twice on different lines, not if you don’t vote straight down one line. “For example, you can’t vote for [Mayor] De Blasio on both the Democrat and Independent line. It’s one or the other.”
When pressed on why the poll worker was telling people to vote down the Democrat line, Alleyne said, “The poll worker was explaining it wrong. He was telling people how to make sure their ballot wasn’t voided, but he’s not supposed to say anything unless they ask for assistance.”
Allen didn’t feel his concerns were heard by Alleyne. “He didn’t take it seriously at all,” said Allen. “He just told the poll worker, ‘You know, you’re not supposed to do that, to tell them how to vote,’ then turned to me and said, ‘Happy?’ I didn’t know what else to do so I left.”
Allen’s account of being told to vote straight down the party line was reported at other polling places throughout the district. Election attorney David said, “I’ve been back and forth from about five polling locations today, putting out fires. In most cases today, the BOE [Board of Elections] staff had already been made aware and were dealing with it. At M.S. 2, a female poll worker was sent home for telling people to vote down the line.”
Valerie Vazquez from the Board of Elections’ public affairs office confirmed that they’d received complaints, though the details wouldn’t be available until well after the elections. “We did receive complaints, and we dispatched a district monitoring team to District 40,” she said. “They’re going site to site. We won’t know any of the stats until we look at the overall report of public information. After all the elections are certified, we’ll publish a report, and it’s up to others to pursue it. We’re not an enforcement agency.”
Over the phone, about four hours before polls closed for the evening, Cunningham said if he were elected, he’d work on legislation to have recording devices at polling locations to keep polling workers accountable. He also vowed, “win or lose, I will be pursuing legal action against Councilman Eugene. It’s extremely important to our democracy to not let these things go.”
Eugene won the District 40 City Council race with 60 percent of the vote; Cunningham received 38 percent. Cunningham posted his concession on his Facebook page, congratulating Eugene and promising to keep fighting for the neighborhood. “Let me be clear,” he said. “I plan to continue to advocate, agitate, and interrupt the status quo.”