Elizabeth Mathewson describes herself as “one of those people who’d vote if there was a dog catcher election.” So when she was suddenly hospitalized on Long Island just before the election and too late to get an absentee ballot, she went on a mission.
She called the Nassau County Board of Elections, but couldn’t get through because of storm-damaged lines. She called U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand, whose offices referred her to the non-working numbers at the Board of Elections. She called and left messages that weren’t returned from political committees. She tried tweeting, and that didn’t work. She even called the White House, which passed her back to the same local officials she couldn’t reach.
“If there is an election, I vote in it,” Mathewson said from her hospital room at North Shore University Hospital. “I just think it is a civic responsibility. All over the world there are people who don’t have that privilege, and I don’t want to abandon it.”
Ultimately, Mathewson connected with a Great Neck lawyer, Michael Sean Weinstock, whose close friend was in the hospital and wanted to vote. The friend, Lee Ielpi is a retired fire chief whose son was killed during the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
Weinstock figured that in addition to Ielpi, president of the 9/11 Tribute Center and Museum, there would probably be lots of potentially disenfranchised people in the medical center, especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. He put in two full days of pro bono reaching out to patients and collecting applications, and brought about 15 of them to the Nassau County Board of Elections, where he ran into a roadblock.
“Tuesday morning, I went to the Board of Elections with a stack of applications for absentee ballots and they were all rejected,” Weinstock said. “So I requested a hearing before a Supreme Court justice and we had a long hearing. Supreme Court Justice Michele Woodard held that every single person would be issued an absentee ballot. I went to Board of Elections, got the ballots, brought them to the hospital and brought them back to the Board of Elections.”
Mathewson said Weinstock returned to her hospital room election night. “The poor man showed up around 7 at night and looked absolutely bedraggled but was very sweet and I filled out the form, signed it and he got it back to the Board of Elections in time,” Mathewson said. “What a nice man.”
William Biamonte, the Democratic election commissioner at the Nassau County Board of Elections, acknowledged that this year, in the aftermath of the hurricane and with an eleventh hour executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo that allowed people to vote outside their district, it was a “Murphy’s Law on steroids” situation.
“We got hit the hardest by the hurricane,” Biamonte said, adding that while his office usually receives 10,000 to 12,000 absentee ballots in a presidential election year, this year there were close to 30,000. “We had to electrify close to 80 poll sites. We had to arrange for generators, outside lights, inside heaters. We had to retrain about 700-plus inspectors because we lost a bunch who were evacuated and we couldn’t reach them. Other than that, everything was wonderful.”
Biamonte sympathized with Weinstock, and his pro bono clients, but said there is no remedy short of a court order for people who miss the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot, which was Friday. The election commissioner said he is all in favor of reforms that would make it easier for people who suddenly become too ill to vote.
“We have the hardest ballot access laws and the toughest election laws, and they need to be liberalized,” Biamonte said. “I think a lot of things could be done to make it easier for people to vote. One of the things we should work on is early voting and then you won’t have as many situations like this.”
Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli said it “was wild and crazy” as officials struggled to accommodate people like Mathewson who were suddenly hospitalized—some because of the storm, as well as first-responders from other areas of the state who were allowed to vote in Nassau County under the governor’s executive order.
“The people from the board were working under intense pressure,” Ciampoli said. “We were on a conference call with homeland security, with state homeland security. We had people from Long Island Power Authority. We consolidated some polling places, especially in Long Beach. To get to the point where we needed to fire up generators for only 40 sites was a pretty terrific job.”
Weinstock said Ciampoli was exceptionally helpful and accommodating when “there was a certain amount of pushback from the Nassau County Board of Elections that I would not have anticipated.” He also gave Cuomo credit for “thinking outside the box and doing something that has never been done before.” However, he said, the election-eve order allowing people to vote outside their home district, but only for statewide offices, understandably created confusion.
John Conklin, spokesman for the state Board of Elections, said it is too early to know the extent of weather and affidavit-related issues that arose on election day. But he acknowledged the executive order, issued about 12 hours before the polls opened, created difficulties for the local election boards.