A dust-up over a video shot in an early voting location Saturday could foreshadow the battle for every last vote in Buffalo's hotly contested mayoral election.
The question over what role supporters can play inside a polling place is at the center of an incident at Delavan-Grider Community Center when a supporter of Mayor Byron Brown was seen assisting an elderly woman in properly casting a write-in vote.
Mailers from state Republicans have arrived at Buffalo homes over the past few days urging voters to write in Byron Brown's name.
Brown supporter Carolette Meadows said she was there to vote and drop off window stickers for the Brown campaign. She was helping two elderly sisters who didn’t know how to use a rubber stamp to write in Brown's name. One of the women asked Meadows for help casting her ballot. Then Meadows asked the other woman if she needed help voting, as well.
That's when former Erie County Legislature Chairperson Betty Jean Grant, a supporter of India Walton, protested that Meadows’ intervention was illegal and began recording the interaction on her cell phone.
Polling locations are open to the public and campaigns may have designated observers inside who can assist a voter in filling out a ballot if the voter asks them for help. Observers are not allowed to wear campaign apparel or approach voters inside polling places because that would violate state law, which prohibits campaigning within 100 feet of a polling place. It is also illegal to videotape voters inside a polling station in New York State, according to local and state officials.
Ralph M. Mohr, Erie County Republican elections commissioner said anyone can ask another citizen for assistance to vote as long as that person is not their employer or a union representative, but a person cannot volunteer to help “because that would be electioneering within 100 feet of the entrance of polling place.”
Based on those rules, both Grant and, by her own admission, Meadows, violated the law.
Mohr said that after receiving an inquiry over the incident from the State Attorney General’s office, a letter was sent Monday to Grant, the Walton supporter, informing her that videotaping someone casting a ballot constitutes voter intimidation. She was banned from entering a polling place again, except to cast her own ballot, and will be prohibited from registering as a poll watcher for Walton's campaign.
Reached Monday, Meadows told The Buffalo News an elderly woman told her she did not know what to do with the Brown stamp, and Meadows showed her how to cast her vote.
Meadows then asked the woman’s elderly sister, who was at a different table, if she needed help filling out the ballot. The woman responded yes, and Meadows helped her, she said.
By letter of the law, the first interaction would have been legal, but the second, when Meadows approached the voter rather than the other way around, was not. Grant said she recorded the incident to show just that.
“I hit record because I wanted the world to see what she was doing by directing a voter how to vote," Grant said.
Meadows said it was her understanding that she was acting legally while helping both women.
“I said, 'I did not tell her how to vote. I was helping her vote, which I can do,' ” Meadows said.
Mohr said no action has been taken against Meadows because no one made the Board of Elections aware that Meadows had initiated the interaction with the voter.
"The video didn’t show how she (Meadows) was asked to assist, but it was our understanding that the lady in the wheelchair was the one who asked for assistance," Mohr said.