By Bob Kappstatter
Charges of massive voter fraud were flying against the Bronx Democratic machine and the city Board of Elections over a hotly contested state assembly primary in the west Bronx allegedly fraught with fraud and other problems in the Tuesday, Sept. 10 primary.
Besides a call for major investigations, the losing candidates are demanding a re-run.
Victor Pichardo, the party-backed newcomer candidate to the 86th Assembly District was leading by only 72 votes against his nearest rival, former district leader Hector Ramirez in the race to fill the seat formerly held by disgraced Nelson Castro, who recently pleaded guilty to state and federal perjury charges.
A final vote count is not expected to begin until Monday, Sept. 16. But with the Board of Elections declaring 100% of the precincts have fully reported, the vote stood at Pichardo 1,195 (22.70%) and Ramirez 1,123 (21.33%).
Ramirez, joined by other candidates outside the Bronx Board of Elections office on the Grand Concourse, charged Friday that the primary was riddled with fraud.
“We are demanding that the Board of Elections and the authorities hear us and then help us to have a fair election. I want a run-off for the candidates.”
Ramirez said he and the other candidates are calling on Gov. Cuomo and a host of agencies, including the U.S. Attorney, state Attorney General and city Department of Investigation to investigate both the Bronx Democratic Party and the city Board of Elections.
Also calling for investigation and a re-run were Yudelka Tapia, Haile Rivera and Keny Nunez.
“This is a candidate that we never heard of in our district,” candidate Haile Rivera said of Pichardo. “We demand new elections,” he said, adding that since the Board of Elections “made us waste all our money campaigning…they should pay for our campaigning for the run-off.”
The most symbolic image of the controversial election was a photo of a voting booth, one of similar others, showing the vote levers missing for all the candidates but Pichardo and one unknown candidate. Poll workers did not take the machines out of service.
Many voters were turned away for various reasons at several polling sites, they charged.
Among the other allegations being raised:
•Candidates were repeatedly turned away by Board of Election officials from inspecting the voting machines in the days just prior to the election, despite their right to do so. They were told the machines were not ready.
•Affidavit ballots, or emergency ballots, filled out by voters whose machines were not working were not counted that same day, as required.
•Voters were turned away for one reason or other at polling sites in several local schools.
•Pichardo’s mother was hired by the Bronx Democratic Party as a poll worker at the highest voter-turnout polling site in the district, allegedly steering voters away after supposedly not finding their names in the registration book.
•Bronx Party Boss Carl Heastie was seen walking around inside polling sites, a legal violation, they said.
•The deputy chief of staff for state Senator Gustavo Rivera, for whom Pichardo worked. was also walking around inside poll sites.
“We know the Board of Elections is incompetent,” said one political operative not handling any of the candidates, “but they’re not THAT incompetent.”
Valeriz Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the city Board of Elections, said “there is nothing to prohibit a county chairman from visting a poll site.”
“There were no complaints received by the Board regarding this matter,” she said, adding if an emergency ballot would be given to substitute a missing lever machine.
Patrick Jenkins, spokesman for Heastie, welcomed an investigation that “brings the facts to light.”
“Any allegations of the party’s involvement in voter fraud are baseless and ridiculous,” wrote Jenkins in a statement..
Milady Leonardo, a poll watcher for Ramirez at a polling site inside a senior citizen center said “There were no emergency ballots. They were letting people vote on broken machines, with 33 votes, but only 11 showing. I asked the supervisor to stop the machine and she refused. She also kept going behind the machines and taking votes out. They left a bag of votes on a window instead of remaining in the machine -that’s illegal.”
Pichardo, a former staffer for state Senator Gustavo Rivera who had the heavy backing of the Bronx political machine, denied the charges.