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Senate control hinges on absentee and affidavit ballots in Ulster County

KINGSTON – Perhaps it is fitting that New York State’s first capital – this historic community along the Hudson River – will likely have the final say in the fight over which political party will control the State Senate come January.

After a week of paper-ballot counting in four other counties in a new sprawling district that spreads from the Mohawk Valley to the Mid-Hudson Valley, election lawyers on Monday began opening the final set of 4,200 absentee and affidavit ballots that were cast Nov. 6 in Ulster County in the race between Republican George Amedore and Democrat Cecilia Tkacyzk.

Until the last paper ballot is counted, expected sometime today, all the state’s political eyes will be focused on Kingston and the goings on in two cramped, windowless rooms at the county’s Board of Election offices on Wall Street. Even then, depending on court challenges, the final results might not be known until later in the week.

Coming into the final county tallying Monday, Amedore, a Republican member of the Assembly from outside Albany, was up by 918 votes. But Monday was a strong day for Tkaczyk, a political newcomer and former school board member from an Albany suburb who ran strongest in Ulster, the most southern county in a new Senate district that Republicans carved earlier this year during redistricting to try to increase their odds of retaining Senate control.

As of Monday evening, Amedore’s lead was cut to between 707 and 714 votes, depending on which party was providing the information. But paper-ballot counting has its mercurial ways and can change, swiftly, depending on which town or even neighborhood is the subject of a particular hour’s tally.

The final counting to decide the Senate’s power structure – and, to a large degree, what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will and will not be able to accomplish over the last two years of his first term – was being done Monday in a stuffy storage room just down the street from where the New York State Senate, on Sept. 9, 1777, held its first session when this city was capital of New York, before being burned by the British during the Revolutionary War.

Crowded around a 6-foot-long folding table were a team of Election Board clerks and officials and a team of Democratic and Republican election lawyers – some of whom have squared off against each other in paper-ballot battles for nearly 30 years and, given their current or past jobs, have been instrumental in crafting the very state election laws they were jostling over on Monday.

For a week, the lawyers have been election law vagabonds, traveling the counties in the large district, missing Thanksgiving meals as they prepared their challenges and all with a singular mission: get their partisan employers in charge of the Senate.

With only a dozen or so people, the cramped room could fit no one else amid the boxes of ballots and piles of election records of voters whose paper ballots might be challenged for any assortment of election law reasons.

In a county where the Democratic candidate won 60 percent of the machine vote earlier this month, Republican lawyers were much more eager on Monday to try to set aside questionable ballots.

Hundreds of such ballots from Ulster and the four other counties in the new 46th Senate District will then – likely later this week – go before a state judge in Montgomery County who will decide which ones are counted and which ones get tossed. Lawyers on both sides of the judge’s decision, depending on the outcome of the Ulster vote count, will be key to which party controls the Senate.

If Republicans were worried, their election lawyers and Senate staff members on hand weren’t showing it. The veteran crew of lawyers on both sides – some of whom have squared off against each other for 30 years – realize there is still much paperwork to go through from surrounding, more-rural communities before a final round of contested ballots goes before a state judge later this week.

The winner of this race will determine control of the Senate, on paper anyway. If Amedore wins, the Republicans will have the votes – thanks to the recent flip by a newly elected Brooklyn Democrat who says he will caucus with the GOP – to continue its generations-long domination of the Senate. If Amedore loses, Democrats will have the votes to control the Senate, but not without the help of four breakaway Democrats who have not ruled out joining with the Republicans in some sort of coalition-type effort that would help keep the GOP at least in partial power. Many Republicans believe the four independent Democrats will join with them if Amedore loses to form a coalition chamber rather than return to a Democratic caucus they left in an ugly split two years ago.

“We’re very optimistic and we’re hoping that a good portion of the ballots being counted today will give us a statistical level of comfort by the end of the day that we believe this is going to be George Amedore’s Senate seat,’’ Sen. Thomas Libous, a Binghamton Republican, said Monday.

Democrats accused Republicans of trying to delay the vote-counting process by challenging far more paper ballots – in all, about 500 as of mid-afternoon Monday from all five counties – that will then delay a final decision by a judge. “The Republicans are trying to sow chaos … to advance their political objectives,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who heads the Senate Democratic campaign committee.

As for the 46th Senate race, “It’s going to be a very close race,” Gianaris said.