Fifteen elderly New Haveners cast their ballots early—but their votes won’t count.
The 15, who live at the Casa Otonal senior complex on Sylvan Avenue in the Hill, submitted absentee ballots in advance of the Nov. 6 election.
Deputy City Clerk Sally Brown disqualified all 15 ballots—because they came to her in a bundle not from the voters themselves, nor from a legally authorized relative or “caretaker.” The sealed envelopes in which the ballots arrived all have a space for an authorized person to sign if collecting or delivering them on behalf of the voters: the space was blank on all the envelopes Brown received.
That means none of the votes will be counted on Nov. 6, Brown said.
It also means that for yet another election cycle New Haven is confronting problems with the collection of absentee ballots. Click here and here to read stories about problems in recent elections. Brown ended up disqualifying 15 absentee ballots from Newhallville voters in the latter case, in 2011.
The Independent spoke with eight of the 15 Casa Otonal voters in their homes.
Seven said they gave their ballots to Eneida Arroyo, a residence manager based at Casa, to deliver. She either came to their apartments or they brought the ballots to her office or to the first-floor cafeteria, they said. One voter among the seven, 83-year-old Maria Fonesca, said she checked off the name of all the Democratic candidates and gave her ballot to her daughter, who delivered it on her behalf to Arroyo.
An eighth voter, Sarah Clybourne, told the Independent she thought she had mailed hers in; but her ballot was included in the batch of 15 hand-delivered to Sally Brown. She said she voted for the Democratic candidates.
Asked about the absentee process, Arroyo (pictured here helping to organize a Three Kings Day celebration at Casa in 2011) said, “We didn’t have any problems.” She said she couldn’t discuss the matter further because she must refer requests for comment to Casa management.
Arroyo referred questions to Casa manager Milagros “Millie” Gomez. Reached Wednesday, Gomez said she knows “nothing” about how the ballots were collected or delivered.
2 Possible Violations Under The Law
Under state law, people may help a voter apply for an absentee ballot. But they may not be present when the voter fills out the ballot. They may not “take possession of” or deliver the ballot unless they fall under the following categories: “a person caring for the applicant due to applicant’s illness or disability; or applicant’s family member, designated by the applicant, and who agrees to act as designee; or if no such person consents or is available, a police officer, registrar of voters, or assistant or deputy registrar of voters in applicant’s town/city of residence.”
That language comes from a chart issued by the Secretary of the State’s Office to advise people on rules governing absentee ballots. Click here to see the whole chart.
Sally Brown said that Arroyo does not qualify under the law as a “caretaker,” such as a nurse in a nursing home, to deliver people’s ballots.
In any case, if Arroyo did qualify, under the law she still would have had to sign the ballots and deliver them herself to the City Clerk’s office at 200 Orange St.
Arroyo apparently handed the bundle to someone else. Eventually a woman named Carol Suber had possession of the bundle of ballots. Suber, a retired City of New Haven employee, is working on senior outreach for state Democratic candidates. Elizabeth Larkin, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, described Suber as a “seasonal part-time worker” assigned to New Haven. She said she had no information about Suber’s role in transporting ballots.
Suber brought an envelope with the bundled unsigned ballots to a city government building. She ran into Sally Brown’s son. She handed them to Sally Brown’s son, asking the son to deliver them to Brown in the City Clerk’s Office, according to Brown.
Attempts to reach Suber for comment, including through a note left at her home, were unsuccessful.
After receiving the envelope, Brown placed the ballots in a folder to be kept in her office until the election. She said she consulted with the Secretary of the State’s office about how to proceed. The advice: The voters can obtain a separate form to request another ballot. They must state a reason in writing for needing another.
As of late Wednesday, no one had requested one, according to Brown.
The seniors interviewed said they filled out the ballots themselves.
“I signed and gave it to her,” said Petra Figueroa (pictured), who’s 62.
Figueroa said a bad knee prevents her from walking to the polls. She said she voted a straight Democratic ticket: Barack Obama—“a good person”— for president, Chris Murphy for Senate, Rosa DeLauro for Congress.
Benito Rivera said he, too voted for Obama. He and his wife Margarita completed ballots that ended up in Brown’s pile of 15. He said he went from his sixth-floor apartment to Casa’s first floor to hand Arroyo his ballot.
Dorothy Lopez (pictured), who lives on the fourth floor, said she too filled out her own ballot and gave it to Arroyo.
Deputy Clerk Brown tied the latest instance of improper absentee ballot collection to the new union-backed majority that won control of the Democratic Party this past year. She noted that members of that majority themselves pressed charges of absentee fraud against an opponent in this case, involving a ward-level Town Committee race.
“They made it very clear that everybody should adhere to the election law. So why are they doing this” now? Brown remarked. “What’s good for one is good for everybody.”
Jackie James, the new city Democratic Party chairwoman, adamantly denied that her group had anything to do with the hand-delivered ballots.
Casa Otonal happens to sit in the Hill neighborhood ward that James represents on the Board of Aldermen. For ten years, James said, Casa’s (former) management wouldn’t even let her in the building to campaign or hand out absentee ballots.
“I’ve had to sneak in the building—even though I represented them!” James said.
James, who is African-American outreach coordinator for the state Democratic Party in this campaign, said Carol Suber, the woman who eventually hand-delivered the absentee ballots to the government office building, had previously appeared at Casa to campaign for the ticket.
James noted that Eneida Arroyo has worked on absentee ballots at Casa for at least a decade. She questioned whether this was indeed the first time she has handled ballots in this way.
“If she did it this time, I would have to believe she’s been allowed to be doing it by someone downtown,” James argued. “I have a concern—Sally [Brown] won’t accept them now because she thinks the union people are involved. But if that’s the way Eneida’s been doing them, somebody’s been accepting them downtown. I can’t believe this lady does not know how to do ABs [absentee ballots] if she’s been doing it all these years.”
To which Sally Brown responded: “She [James] doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
“They have never returned ballots to this office. Never. There has never been one ballot brought in from 135 [Sylvan, Casa Otonal] directly to this office. Never. They put stamps on them and put them in the mail. There is not one senior citizen home in the city that brings hand-delivered ballots to me. There have never been ballots brought in like that.”