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Critics charge delay in vote counting is illegal

Vote counting for nearly a quarter of Erie County's polling places won't start until Monday, six days after the votes were cast, and that delay has critics crying foul.

Several primary elections hang in the balance, with candidates not knowing whether they should be raising money, campaigning or taking polls for their chances in November.

As a result, the election season for many is at a standstill.

The actions of the Board of Elections are not only unfair, they're against the law, several are charging.

"Everything they've done is illegal," said Leonard A. Roberto, founder of the group Primary Challenge, which is awaiting results of three key Erie County Legislature races. "They have committed a felony, and they need to be held accountable."

Roberto cited laws stipulating that votes must be counted at polling places. A decision to have county sheriff's deputies haul the lock boxes to the downtown Board of Elections after the polls closed was improper, Roberto argued.

Elections officials insisted they had no choice, saying the county's budget mess resulted in their staff being slashed to 31 from 58 a year ago.

"Unfortunately, because of the budget cuts, we had to take shortcuts in the law in some respects," said Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr. But critics accuse elections officials of going out of their way to make the vote tabulation process more cumbersome.

"I think they're trying to draw attention to their staffing woes," said Kathy Konst, who is embroiled in a close race for the Independence Party line in the county's 5th legislative district.

"It's just a smoke screen," said Roberto. "Either they're trying to alter election results, or create the appearance of a need to pry more money out of the Legislature for staffing.

Mohr dismissed that claim.

"I've resigned myself to the fact that we're not getting any more money from the county," he said.

Konst claimed there were other problems caused by last-minute changes in the voting process. She said there are numerous reports that some people were denied their legal right to file affidavits when questions surfaced about their voting eligibility. She also claimed some elections inspectors were ill-equipped to assist voters who made mistakes on paper ballots. Konst said the problems create an unlevel field for some candidates who seek ballot spots in the November election. She said she's one of the fortunate candidates. Regardless of whether she wins es her bid for the Independence line, she will be on the November ballot as a Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Denise E. Marshall.

"But a lot of candidates are going to be held in limbo," said Konst. "Some people might be hesitant to give donations if there's uncertainty over who won the primary."

Mohr was unapologetic to candidates who may have to wait a couple of weeks to learn their fates. "We need to put preserving the integrity of the ballots over expediency," said Mohr.

But why are officials waiting until next week to begin counting up to 85,000 paper ballots? Mohr said there is a lot of preparation that must take place before the tabulation process begins, including reconciling the number of voters who turned out at each district.

Mohr said he's not worried about efforts by some to trigger a state investigation of the primary process used by Erie County. In a worse case scenario, said Mohr, the move could trigger a legal challenge. But he said he's confident the county can justify its actions.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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