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Semi-Abandoned Shopping Mall Is Latest Battleground For Katz And Cabán

Workers inside the Rentar Plaza mall sort Queens DA ballots into accordion folders
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Workers inside the Rentar Plaza mall sort Queens DA ballots into accordion folders Fred Mogul / WNYC

On one side it’s a shopping mall. On the other, facing a large cemetery for All Faiths, it’s a bleak red-brick wall with delivery bays on the outside and warehouse space on the inside, not to mention the vacant shells of former K-Mart and Toys "R" Us outlets.

And inside this non-descript behemoth on Metropolitan Avenue sits the fate of the criminal justice system of Queens.

The Rentar Plaza is where the New York City Board of Elections stores voting machines for Queens, and it’s where BOE workers have converged to manually recount some 91,000 ballots cast last month in the Democratic primary for District Attorney.

The process started officially on Tuesday, but actual counting is expected to begin on Monday.

So far, workers have been taking paper ballots out of sealed blue boxes, combining them with absentee, affidavit and military ballots, and sorting them into brown accordion folders by election district.

All without examining what’s on the ballots or passing judgment on their legitimacy.

But that’s soon to change. In the next phase, workers will tally ballots, one by one, to determine whether the Democratic nominee for DA will be Borough President Melinda Katz, or public defense lawyer Tiffany Cabán. Katz currently has a 16-vote lead that could widen, shrink or be overturned by the manual recount, which state law demands any time the margin of victory is less than one-half of one percent.

The physical process of counting ballots is expected to take about two weeks. Likely court challenges could take much longer.

“We usually don’t finish until Thanksgiving or so,” said election attorney Thomas Garry.

Mind you, he’s talking about the many general election recounts he’s worked on in November, not a primary in June, but the point is the same: the whole process usually takes several weeks from start to finish.

The laborious process of collating ballots is something of a warm-up. Like the actual counting, it involves two Board of Elections workers - a designated Democrat and a designated Republican - sitting at a desk, under the watchful eye of volunteers from the two campaigns. If the observers have any questions, they signal for help from campaign attorneys, who come over to clarify what the problem is and seek a resolution.

This happens rarely during the first organizational phase, but then more often during the counting.

“It’s like being a pit boss at a casino, you’re literally bouncing around from table to table,” Garry said.

There are a few things volunteers are trained to keep an eye out for:

  • Discrepancies in the numeric tally, between what the scanner reported for an election district on primary night and what the workers tabulated by hand at the table.
  • Ballots with identifiable marks must be rejected. Sometimes people initial or sign ballots, thinking it’s a protective safeguard against election fraud, but ballots are supposed to be secret, so this is a disqualifying no-no - and one the scanner doesn’t pick up.
  • Ballots with “over-votes,” where the voter marked two candidates for the same race, presumably thinking these were candidates for different races (such as district attorney and civil court judge). The scanners should have rejected these without counting them, but they may have gotten counted mistakenly.
  • Similarly, ballots where the circles weren’t properly filled in - but were underlined or checked - should not have registered with the scanner for technical reasons. But if they weren’t counted, they now can be, as long as the voter’s intent can be clearly discerned.

Lawyers need to pick their battles, Garry said.
“You may have an overzealous volunteer who says, 'I think that's an identifiable mark,'” Garry said. “And you call everyone over, and you look, and it's one straight pen line, and you say, 'I'm ok with that. I'll let that one go,’ and you say to your adversary, ‘Look, I’m trying to be reasonable.’”
Disputed ballots that the two sides can’t resolve get set aside to be adjudicated by the judge, in this case John G. Ingram. (Ingram was imported from Brooklyn so that he would be outside the Queens Democratic Party establishment.) But these red-flagged ballots only find their way into the courtroom for adjudication if they’d make a difference, when combined with other challenges.
Even before starting the ballot recount, Cabán’s legal team lodged a challenge over affidavit ballots that were disqualified. The Board of Elections refused to count more than 2,000 of these provisional ballots, and they remain sealed in envelopes with voters’ affidavits on the outside with their names and addresses.
In court on Tuesday, Cabán lawyer Jerry Goldfeder told Ingram he was focusing initially on 114 ballots that he said were rejected because people did not correctly identify themselves as members of the Queens Democratic Party. But he said there are other ballots he might also challenge on other grounds.
“I’m not saying what that is right now,” he said outside the courthouse, “but I let the court know that we think there are potentially other problems out there we’re prepared to challenge as well.”

Fred Mogul is the Albany and politics reporter for WNYC. You can follow him on Twitter @fredmogul.

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