Breaking down Springville’s election process
According to Springville Village Administrator Tim Horner, when the Springville trustee elections ended with a tie between incumbent Jean Moncreiff and challenger Alan Chamberlin on March 20, a quandary arose as to what to do next. “When it was known to us that it was a tie, we didn’t know exactly what the proper thing was going forward,” he said. “This has never happened before in Springville, to my knowledge.”
Chamberlin and Campaign Manager Seth Wochensky expressed their concerns about the way the election was conducted.
“There has not been a significant challenge to village government in decades,” said Wochensky. “And we have strong concerns about the election process. The village didn’t think it did anything wrong, but [half of the] people’s votes are being discounted, at this point [with Moncreiff’s still serving on the board].”
Out of the 2,230 registered voters in the village, 329 cast their ballots March 20 for an increase of 253 individuals from the last trustee election. Horner had ordered 300 ballots from Erie County, which also supplies poll books, absentee ballots and poll scanners for elections, at a charge. In addition, trained election inspectors from Erie County remain at the polling place for the entire election. They are paid by the village.
“We were not that far off in the 30,” Horner said, “but yes, we did not order a sufficient amount of ballots for everybody to vote. We could have had more ballots printed, but by the time we realized that [we needed more], it was too late.”
According to New York State Board of Election law, “If the supply of official ballots shall be exhausted before the polls are closed, the board of elections, or at its direction, the town or city clerk, or the election inspectors of such district, shall cause emergency ballots to be prepared, printed or written, as nearly in the form of the official ballots as practicable. The inspectors shall use the ballots so substituted in the same manner, as near as may be, as the official ballots.”
Horner said that photocopies were made of a regular ballot and made available to voters after the original ballots ran out. “They were handed the photocopy, they cast their vote on that ballot and they were told to slide that into a locked drawer,” he said. “At the end of the night, we had to manually count those 30 votes, along with the 16 absentee ballots, and take those numbers and add them to the printout that comes out of the scanning machine.”
While individuals sign a poll book before they cast their votes, the ballots themselves are not numbered, per Horner, allowing voters to have anonymity when going to the polls. “People are very private about their vote,” he said. “If there was a number on the ballot, you could track back to who voted what.” Horner added that the lack of a number on election ballots allow for valid, blank photocopies to be made.
According to Horner, the March 20 ballots remained locked in the scanner until Erie County representatives came to pick up the machine. After that, the ballots were stored in the basement of the village office alongside ballots from previous years. “Once the election’s over and been certified, the ballots have no significance,” he said. “That is after the amount of time when the election could have been contested.” The emergency and absentee ballots were also kept locked up until the contestation time was passed. “I left them under lock and key,” Horner said. “Everything was done above-board and with the utmost care.”
The village trustee candidates had two days in which to ask for a recount or to contest the election. “There was no recount,” Horner said. “I just added up the numbers that were counted. Erie County would have gone through every ballot [in the event of a recount]. I did not do that.”
Moncreiff said that she did not ask for a recount because she was confident that the election results were totaled correctly. “I didn’t see the need for a recount,” she said. “Here you have a small number and it’s easier to look at it and feel the figures are correct.”
Horner said that, in a phone call made to the Erie County Board of Elections the night of the tied election, he was initially advised that the mayor could appoint a candidate of his choice to fill the trustee seat for the remainder of the year. “It wouldn’t have to even be one of those who ran; it could have been anybody,” Horner said. The following year, there would have been a special election for an elected trustee.
“As it turns out, the New York State Conference of Mayors [said] village law differs from town law in some areas,” Horner said.
“I was advised that ... there are two correct steps going forward. Throw the names into a hat and do a lotto. A state supreme judge had to pull the name. Neither candidate requested that. The other option was a run-off election.”
Springville Mayor William Krebs said that, historically, a close election is not unheard of, although he could not recall a tie happening before in Springville. “I ran for trustee three times and every time, I had an opponent. One was a special election with only two candidates and that was not extremely close. The other two, votes were within five votes and two votes. Three-way elections have historically been a very close election,” he said.
According to Moncreiff, the village administrators chose the May 1 date because they “had to allow time for absentee ballots to go out and we couldn’t do it in April because of the Republican primaries” and to accommodate for legal notices’ to be printed. “We checked with NYCOM ... plus our own village attorney, to verify what we had done,” she said. “Everything was done by the book. Nothing illegal about it. This will be run properly, just like the first one was.”
Krebs said, “Residents can be assured that the election was run properly, that we sought the legal advice on the procedure followed during the election and afterward. It was legal and fair; there are no questions in my mind.”
During the March 20 election, two individuals cast affidavit votes, which are offered to residents whose names are not in the poll book. Per the New York Civil Liberties Union, voters who have moved, changed their names, do not know where their polling places are or who do not have identification on them, can cast these types of votes.
“Sometimes the books are compiled incorrectly,” the NYCLU said. “If your name is ... not found on the voting list, ask for an affidavit ballot.” Individuals voting with affidavit ballots are later verified through the board of elections to see if they were, in fact, registered to vote. After their names clear, their votes are counted, “but only if it can be determined that they truly are registered,” Horner said. “If the county cannot determine it, they cannot be counted.”
The two voters utilizing affidavit ballots on March 20 could not be verified by Erie County, and their votes were not counted.
In the interim between the March 20 election and the May 1 run-off election, Moncreiff remains a trustee and deputy mayor, as per her re-appointment to that position at the last village board meeting, according to Krebs.
Chamberlin said that he worried about Moncreiff’s serving on the board during a “crucial time period” in village government. “As a trustee on that board, she is voting on all appointments. The term is spelled out, and a tie is not a win,” he said.
“It only makes sense. The village government should go on running while this issue is being sorted out,” Krebs said, noting that Moncreiff will step down as both trustee and deputy mayor if Chamberlin wins the run-off election.
Horner said he has not yet ordered the ballots for May 1. “I learned that there are 2,230 registered voters in Springville,” he said. “The rule of thumb the [Erie County Board of Elections] uses is that they print for about 33 percent of the registered voters. So in our case, that’s going to be 700-some ballots. That’s more than twice who turned out.”
Moncreiff said she is confident that the May 1 election will be “handled the way it should be. Tim [Horner] did everything he was supposed to,” she said. “It was handled totally above board.”
Krebs said that he believes the village officials conducted the election and tie-breaking procedure as well as they could, given the information they had. “We also talked about the opportunity for either party to come forward to contest the election. Neither did. Some of the questions the opposing party is asking now, long after the fact, could have been answered if they had, but they didn’t,” Krebs said.
“I think it’s not just the platform of revitalizing downtown Springville,” he added. “It’s clear that they don’t like the village government and that’s the reason for these charges. There’s no reason to suspect we would have thrown the election. Those claims are not founded and I can assure everyone that we followed the letter of the law. A tie, while rare, does happen. We are not playing partisan politics. There are no patronage jobs at stake. We are just neighbors trying to get together to make Springville a better place. I don’t see any problem with how the election was run.”
Horner noted that he is encouraged by the number of community members who turned out to vote, and stressed that “there isn’t one of us that would try to do anything that would taint that right to vote. It’s very upsetting to think that the board and me would be criticized of inappropriateness or favoring one candidate over another. The election was above-board, fair and legal.”
Krebs noted that, as the run-off date approaches, he and the village trustees will continue to conduct “business as usual.
“In Springville, as long as I can remember, we have run an open government. That’s something I take very seriously. Trustees have always been very open and there is no reason to expect any sort of conspiracy,” said Krebs. “I and the board of trustees have always acted in the best interest of the village.”
Anyone with questions about the Springville voting process or either the March 20 or May 1 elections may contact Horner at the Springville Village Office, 592-4936, or call the Erie County Board of Elections at 858-8891. The attorneys the Springville administrators have consulted are Dennis Ward and Ralph Moore.
“Criticisms that have been raised were raised without understanding of the election process,” Horner said. “Unfortunately, the individuals are suspicious of government or the people running the election. They think those individuals favor one of the candidates. That’s simply not so.”