All electronic and paper ballots from a Sept. 30 referendum vote in Ramapo, N.Y., were impounded and then ultimately nullified two weeks ago by the state’s Supreme Court on allegations of election fraud. Town lawyer Michael Klein has appealed the ruling.
The referendum, which would have reconfigured voting districts from citywide to a ward system and increase the town’s board from four to six members, pitted elements of the area’s large Jewish community against each other and against other residents.
Two of Ramapo’s several villages are predominantly Chasidic or haredi Orthodox. Critics of the referendum said the redistricting would weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole. Proponents of the ballot measure said it would level the playing field of the diverse town, which is home to large Latino and Haitian communities.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Garvey’s court order was directed at town clerk Christian Sampson and the lack of clear communication by the local election board regarding absentee vote counts and the eligibility of nonregistered voters to cast a ballot through the use of an affidavit of residency.
“They had 400 people who signed affidavits [to vote] at the Town Hall polling place,” said Bob Rhodes, chairman of activist group Preserve Ramapo and a longtime Jewish resident of the town. “We’ve also heard people were coming in and not even filling out the affidavit [when a poll site ran out of the forms]. They were just voting. No I.D., nothing.”
Soon after Garvey’s ruling calling for a new election, Klein appealed the decision. Klein did not respond to request for comment, but Robert Romanowski, who spent two years petitioning to have the referendum vote and also filed the lawsuit on election day alleging election fraud, said the town contended in its Notice of Appeal that Garvey lacked the jurisdiction needed to invalidate the special election, the lawsuit was improperly filed prior to the counting of ballots, and the charges leveled in the suit lacked merit.
“They’ve put a stay on the election. … They want to sit on it indefinitely to perfect their appeal,” Rhodes said of the town. “We’re going to ask the judge to expedite the appeal, to force them to file their papers.
“On top of a blatantly fraudulent election that they created,” he added, “they’re doing everything possible to keep it in the courts forever.”
For her part, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, a Democrat whose district includes Ramapo, said that election integrity should be the primary concern.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the town moved to appeal,” she said. “The judge made her decision. … A democratic election works to make sure the results are reliable, and that is a concern here. We have to restore voter confidence so we need to move forward with the judge’s ruling.”
Jaffee, who is Jewish and lives in the predominately Jewish village of Suffern, is one of several people working to prevent election confusion in Ramapo from happening again. In question is the difference, according to state law, between a special election and a general one and how that affects the use of absentee ballots, affidavits and poll watchers. Voters pointed to all three issues as unclear in the Sept. 30 special election, with many attributed the confusion to miscommunication by election officials.
“We’ve been discussing legislation that would apply general election laws to all municipalities with populations over a certain size, perhaps 25,000,” Jaffee said of efforts on the state level. “We feel this would give more confidence to the communities regarding how elections can move forward.”
Town zoning is a hotly contested issue in Ramapo, and the recent referendum outcome would have affected zoning processes. Critics blame Orthodox developers for obtaining questionable zoning permits that allow large multi-unit structures to be built on sites originally zoned for single units and say town resources cannot sustain that level of growth.
Rhodes said of the Preserve Ramapo group, “We are not opposed to building. We are opposed to irresponsible building.”
While the court case proceeds, attention has turned to an anti-ward group with direct ties to the town government that raised about $130,000, most of it from developers, in an effort to defeat the referendum. An email reportedly sent from the personal account of Mona Montal, the town’s director of purchasing and a member of the Orthodox community in Suffern, appears to solicit money to pay for anti-referendum materials.
“We really really need your help,” the email reads, according to a copy provided to the JT by Preserve Ramapo member Mike Castelluccio. “As I mentioned most of the developers are contributing between $10,000 and $20,000 — some consultants have given 5K.”
Rhodes and Preserve Ramapo would like to see the electronic ballots counted from the original vote or at least to conduct a repeat election in a timely manner with proper regulations in place.
“We don’t want to take over the town or do the Chasidim in, we just want a responsible board, one that will create a decent place to live for the community,” said Rhodes. “I hate to say these things … this is such a terrible embarrassment to the entire Jewish community.”
Melissa Gerr is a staff writer for the Baltimore Jewish Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.