The debacle of the Democratic Election Commissioner appointment ended well Wednesday night with the near-unanimous approval by the full Board of Supervisors (BoS) of the Columbia County Democratic Committee’s (CCDC) recommendation of Ken Dow (21 yea, 1 nay, 1 abstention).
Dow won the raucous, contentious election at the CCDC against three candidates—Penny Panoulias, Erin Stamper, and Mark Young—with 56% of the vote to Stamper’s 42%. He held the position from 2005 to 2008, left on a high note to run for state senate, has practiced election and municipal law ever since, and is better prepared than anyone to take over from Virginia Martin in the potentially chaotic election year of 2020—one presidential primary, one state and federal primary, and one presidential election with important down ballot races, each with nine days of early voting. In addition to every conceivable qualification, he has all the qualities—intelligence, integrity, compassion, an unflappable temperament, dedication to the causes of enfranchisement and fair elections.
But before we say goodbye to her and hello to him, let me say what no one wants to hear because it’s dirty Democratic party laundry and ‘it’s time to move on.’ But the loss of Virginia Martin is not fully offset by the gain of Ken Dow. Not because he is not all of the above, but because the case for replacing her crumbles under scrutiny and it’s time to do the wash so maybe we can move on with a cleaner slate. If we are the party of truth, justice, and compassion, we had better own up to it when we don’t live up to our own ideals.
If you read the Columbia Paper story by Debby Mayer a few weeks ago, you got a Cliff Notes version that was, at best, incomplete; at worst, sprinkled liberally with errors.
Inexplicably, Mayer did not talk to Martin, who was Democratic Commissioner for the past eleven years (not “several”, which means four, as reported in the story).
Democratic County Chair Keith Kanaga’s explanation of why, for the first time in those eleven years, CCDC called for other candidates, i.e. “… people expressed interest in having a choice, rather than simply recommending the incumbent …” People? Which people? Party leadership? Committee members? I’m on the committee. Not me. Not any of the committee members in my town. Not anyone I’d heard from. Who, then?
There is a rumor that sounds like more than rumor and a better explanation than “people expressed interest”. It was the reason given for voting against Martin by at least one supervisor and not denied by another, who said he’d heard it. Purportedly, Democratic party leaders made a deal with Republican party leaders to make the position of commissioner full time with bigger budget and better support, if both parties were purged of their then current commissioners—Republican Jason Nastke and Democrat Martin.
If true, it wasn’t necessary. Nastke already had a full-time job and would have left anyway.
It would have made more sense to give Martin the full-time job budget and support, after more than a decade of working close to and oftentimes more than fulltime on part-time salary with a too-small staff, not to mention nonperformance and lack of cooperation from Nastke, and hostility from his staff. Unless of course it would have been a backroom deal breaker. (In those eleven years of full-time-plus on part-time pay, Martin averaged under $25,000 per year. The now full-time job she didn’t get pays $65,000.)
If the rumor is true, it would explain at least in part why Kanaga, in concert with Sarah Sterling, Minority Leader of the Democratic caucus of the BoS, asked Martin to withdraw from the race even before the CCDC had voted on her reappointment. It would explain why they insisted that whether she won the CCDC vote or not, she didn’t have the votes in the full BoS or the 12-member Democratic caucus, which had the option to overturn the BoS vote until January 26. It would also explain why I was told the lie by two party leaders that Martin barely squeaked through two years ago by one vote, when in fact, she had all BUT one vote.
Another assertion is not so easy to vet because the documents on which it is based are open only to town supervisors and the commissioner herself. Rumor has it that grievances of human rights violations have been filed in Human Resources. But Martin would have been informed if grievances had been filed and she hadn’t even heard the rumor until I mentioned it. The only relevant documents at HR are exit interviews. Martin has seen those but is barred from disclosing their contents, or even how many there are, although she could and did say the number was “low”. Given that former employees under Martin’s watch numbered six over all those years, and that typically her full staff roster is three, I’m guessing that low means low; I’m also guessing that Martin wanted to say more, but could not. (There are reasons other than a bad boss to exit a high-stress workplace with an adversarial dynamic.)
Who started the false rumors? Who changed the minds of supervisors who had previously supported Martin? Who reported purported problems at the Board of Elections, but seemed to have it backwards? All open to speculation. I have speculated and constructed a narrative that makes sense to me, but I’ll stick to the facts.
“The process dictated by state election law then puts the committee’s recommendation before the full Board of Supervisors (BOS), for its required approval”, says Mayer in her story. Actually, approval by the full BoS is not required. The recommendation can but needn’t go before the full BoS during the first 30-day period after the committee vote. The recommendation can but needn’t go before the full BoS during the SECOND 30-day period after the committee vote. BUT, during the second 30-day period, when the newly elected BoS has been seated, the party caucus may simply appoint the recommended candidate. Only the party caucus has the authority to appoint the candidate, and only in the second 30-day period. Yet the caucus chose to take the vote to the full board in the first 30-day period in December when the caucus can’t control the appointment.
So why did party leadership inform the CCDC that the BoS had to vote on December 11, when they did not? (Martin informed leadership more than once that the full board did not have to vote in December, or at all for that matter, but was ignored.) Because of the backroom deal?
“Kanaga said January 17, ‘The action is still with the caucus,’ but he said he was certain the caucus would not reappoint Ms. Martin.” Mayer continues: “He was sure of this, he said, because of 23 supervisors who had voted on the recommendation of Ms. Martin, 20 voted no, and 3 voted yes.”
Misleading at best, because the caucus consists of only twelve Democrats, so Martin needed only seven votes; fewer if the vote was weighted (which it should have been; everything else at the BoS is weighted) which would mean she only needed six and she already had four, possibly more. Until the story ran at the eleventh hour, party leadership kept the information that the caucus had the authority to reappoint Martin quiet, if not secret. (It was mentioned in one email to the CCDC, but only in a link to the election law that lays it out, and not in the email itself.)
One of the supervisors I spoke to had no idea until I told her; she thought it was all over. Most of the committee members did too. Subsequent emails to the full committee said only that it was “extremely unlikely” that Martin would be reappointed, and therefore the committee was calling for candidates to submit applications and make their pitches at a CCDC meeting on January 30.
At worst, it was intentionally misleading so the Dems could keep their part of the rumored bargain. But it was also a mischaracterization or misunderstanding of how voting openly in a small body works, how one changed vote can trigger one more and so on.
Prior to the CCDC vote in favor of Martin, the voting members of the Democratic caucus numbered eleven. Kathy Eldridge, Greenport Town Supervisor and Independence Party member caucused with the Democrats but couldn’t vote with them until she changed her registration to the Democratic Party two days after the CCDC vote to recommend Martin’s reappointment. Had there been only eleven votes, Martin’s path to reversing the full BoS vote against her would have been a lot wider. She would have needed only six votes, not seven, and she already had four, and a probable fifth and sixth. (If you are wondering if Eldridge’s sudden desire to become a Democrat was tied to the commissioner vote, wonder no more. She changed back to the Independence Party once she was no longer needed to vote against Martin.)
Finally, the specter of early voting is raised, and with it, more errors.
“ ‘This introduced a level of complexity that was new,’ said Mr. Kanaga. Problems arose. The Board of Elections had a number of months to prepare for the new voting system, but ‘whatever they did was not sufficient,’ said Mr. Kanaga.”
Martin had warned both the CCDC and Nastke that it would be very difficult to manage three early voting locations and recommended just one, at the BoE itself, but Nastke insisted on three, inexplicably for a Republican whose party generally works to restrict, not expand access. Then, last spring, under pressure from the State Board of Elections to settle, when Nastke agreed to her terms for strict election-materials security, she agreed on three, knowing that most Democrats would be thrilled with that level of access.
Locked into nine days at three polling places, she tried repeatedly to engage Nastke in planning all those months in advance and asked Kanaga for help. He reportedly tried and failed to get it from Greg Fingar, his Republican counterpart. Martin did what she could on her own, which, no, was not sufficient. It couldn’t have been, but it was enough to make it possible to vote early (at a higher rate than any other county in New York) and keep the ballots safe and the count accurate, although Martin says it almost killed her and her small staff, and Republican staff too. Nastke finally showed up the night before the first day of early voting. Martin et al had to stay at the board until 2:30am and be back hours later, at 7am, to be ready for all three polling places to open. So maybe the “they” in Kanaga’s sentence should include whatever he and Republican leadership did and didn’t do too.
“On the first day of early voting, some ballots could not be scanned. Election Day, glitches continued, as listed by Mr. Kanaga: ‘Voting machines with missing or broken seals, ballot bags not adequately controlled on election night and reports of degrees of difficulties with the ballot-counting process that showed up in certification delay.’”
Martin addressed all of this with the caucus with adequate explanations for all. Yes, experiencing some problems was unavoidable, and some mistakes were made by utterly exhausted staff, but none of them affected the actual voting, the safety of the ballots or the accuracy of the count. According to Martin, the accusation that ballot bags were not adequately controlled is utterly false. “The ballot bags were under bipartisan supervision at all times”, she says. And late certification is not unusual; and was even more usual this year. There were problems with machines, reporting, and certification throughout the state. In fact, a nearby county certified its election a week after ours, and a Democratic caucus leader at the state level suggested that the problems were caused at least in part by deliberate Republican obstruction, because early voting was a Democratic initiative. That Nastke was M.I.A. until the literal eleventh hour suggests as much.
Kanaga adds that “the state Board of Elections has offered its help to Columbia County” in future. Martin retorts that they have always had the support of the state BoE, which assists every county every day of the year.
As for reported dissatisfaction among Democratic supervisors, there was only one, possibly two exceptions and Martin worked at trying to work with those two.
One couldn’t or wouldn’t be specific about her complaints, except to say that she had long had a bad time at the board. The other was very specific and had numerous complaints. There was an in-person meeting with Martin, and numerous calls and email threads with others who represented her, including me, and explained that she was obliged to follow New York State election law, but that her inclination was to side with the voter and make it possible to vote. She conceded that although disenfranchisement is never her intention (on the contrary), it might have been the effect of her actions on one occasion. Yet there were no concessions on the part of the supervisor, and Martin’s commitment to close collaboration on increasing voter registration and participation was never fully accepted. It left me with the feeling that there was no intention of supporting her, no matter what she said or did.
But those were exceptions. There was no indication that any of the other supervisors were opposed to Martin until Kanaga and Sterling asked her to withdraw, purportedly because she didn’t have sufficient support in the caucus. Upon closer examination, the effect of a disinformation campaign by a disgruntled former employee who has brought a baseless suit again Martin, her deputy Diane Boice-Yorck, and the Board of Elections, had turned at least two more supervisors against her. The early voting problems caused another supervisor to blow late certification way out of proportion.
One has to wonder why Martin didn’t get a do over with all the new support in place, i.e. adequate recompense, time, budget, staff, and, hopefully less hostility and obstruction from new Republican staff.
Sadly, Kanaga clung to neutrality rather than support Martin when other candidates appeared, including the aforementioned Erin Stamper, a part-time underling Martin had hired at the BoE in the spring and elevated to full-time status only a month before the CCDC election, who also happens to be Kanaga’s vice-chair.
Martin won the recommendation of the CCDC anyway, but Kanaga did not support her at the BoS either and she did not get its approval. And sadly, Sterling refused to call the caucus to a meeting before the clock ran out on its right to overturn the full BoS decision, although she was asked by Art Bassin, Ancram Town Supervisor, and Peter Cipkowski, Hillsdale Town Supervisor to do so, and at least two, and probably three to five other supervisors would have voted for her. (Side note: Kanaga openly endorsed Stamper hours before the committee met to make a second recommendation. So much for neutrality.)
Sadly, because Virginia Martin made Columbia County a star of the Election Integrity movement by instituting rigorous, transparent hand counting of paper ballots in all local races at the least, and is in demand as a speaker and panelist at conferences and forums around the country. Sadly, because she has testified as an expert witness in two successful federal election-integrity and voting-rights cases, in New York and in Georgia. Sadly because she has all those qualities—intelligence, compassion, temperament, and the utmost integrity and dedication to her job, which was more like a calling, as reflected in letters of support from the State Board of Elections, calling her “one of the outstanding commissioners in New York State” and from the Election Integrity movement, citing her “profoundly important work”.
The bargain, if there was one, was kept, and the coup, if there was one, succeeded, but probably not as intended.
Pictured above: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Virginia Martin