With absentee ballots counted, Bishop still has slim lead

ROBERT OROURK FILE PHOTO | Tim Bishop, pictured here on election night is leading at the close of absentee ballot counting.

Incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop opened up a 235-vote lead over the GOP’s Randy Altschuler as the counting of absentee and affidavit ballots in New York’s 1st Congressional District race wound down Tuesday.

Mr. Altschuler, a St. James businessman, watched his lead of almost 400 votes dissolve after counting began last Tuesday, with Mr. Bishop taking the lead by more than 200 votes Monday afternoon, then making further gains on that margin. Counting of the 11,500 such ballots cast in the congressional race was completed Tuesday afternoon.

“We are very confident that Tim Bishop has won this election,” said Mr. Bishop’s spokesman, Jon Schneider.

Still, the race is by no means decided. Both parties have been directed to appear next Tuesday in Suffolk County Supreme Court to address the some 2,000 challenged ballots, which did not count toward Tuesday’s final tally — including absentee, affidavit and Election Day votes — that had Mr. Bishop ahead by 97,050 to 96,815 votes, Mr. Schneider said.

Mr. Altschuler did not appear ready to concede the contested ballots, and with that the race. As of Tuesday afternoon, the GOP had contested about 1,260 votes while the Democratic camp had contested 790.

“We’re going to evaluate everything and stay progressive in how we’re going to proceed,” Mr. Altschuler’s spokesman, Rob Ryan, said Tuesday — just hours before the final reported tally — about contesting individual ballots and the prospect of a recount. The candidate had been fighting the potential for a hand count when he was leading by 400 votes. “I don’t want to speculate about that at this point,” Mr. Ryan said, but noted that an editorial in Tuesday’s New York Times did call for hand recounts in all yet-to-be decided races in the state, even though they are costly.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bishop, of Southampton, who is seeking his fifth two-year term, headed to Orlando, Fla., Tuesday for his annual family vacation to Disney World.

“Mr. Bishop could be riding on Space Mountain as we speak. We feel good about where this is going,” Mr. Schneider said. “Given that every day we’ve been counting we’ve been picking up votes and given they have 471 more objections than we do. When you consider both sides will get an equal amount of objections dismissed, we feel we have more than 400 votes in the bank.”

Both sides have experienced a roller coaster ride since election night, when preliminary tallies by election workers had Mr. Bishop up about 3,500 votes. A recanvassing of the optical voting machines, used for the first time in a Suffolk County general election, showed he was actually down by 383. And an ongoing audit of 3 percent of voting machines has shown no problems with the equipment.

But that doesn’t mean voters weren’t confused going into the booth, where they were supposed to use a pen to fill in circles next to candidate names. Some voters reported drawing X’s or checkmarks or circling candidates’ names.

The reported confusion could be enough to result in a hand recount, though Mr. Altschuler’s side has argued that the law wouldn’t allow for it without specific grounds, such as a machine audit that found problems with the devices.

The media are updated on the count by campaign managers, as county Board of Election officials in Yaphank won’t provide information until the vote is official.

Neither side would speculate Tuesday as to when a final determination would be made.

“It’s been a seesaw since election night,” said veteran lobbyist Desmond Ryan (no relation to Rob Ryan), who has been watching the 1st Congressional District race closely. “The question now begs, at the end of the day, with such a large number of contested ballots, does it go to court or can it reach some resolve with the Board of Elections?”

Throughout the week-long count of absentee and affidavit ballots, the two sides have been sparring. Mr. Altschuler’s camp has accused the Democrats of contesting military ballots as well as those cast by poll workers and multi-millionaires who have only summer residences in Suffolk County.

Rob Ryan e-mailed a press release to media Monday that read: “We will not let Tim Bishop steal this election.”

Mr. Schneider has repeatedly said the Altschuler campaign’s contested votes came as “part of a game” to make it appear the race was closer than it actually was. “I think it’s a joke; it’s offensive that they think they could be the arbiters who can and cannot vote in this country,” Mr. Schneider said.

Votes from Mr. Bishop’s parents, who sent in absentee ballots from Florida, and the college student son of lame duck state Senator Brian Foley (D-Blue Point), also cropped up as topics of squabbling during the ballot fight.

As for the possible hand recount, Desmond Ryan said, “It boils down to this: Were there problems with the machines? Yes. Large problems? No. Was there some confusion among the senior populations? Yes. So you want to get it right; no matter how long the process takes, the electorate deserves a proper decision.

“The ironic factor in all this,” he continued, “is that the reason so much money was spent on these voting machines was so we would have a paper trail but we wouldn’t have dangling chads,” as in the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

“But we still have two congressional candidates dangling in the wind.”

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