Glenn Choolokian visited about
8,000 homes during the campaign
trying to persuade voters
to make a change. But was it
Elections are oftentimes peculiar.
The consolidation by the county Board of Elections of three polling places in the city’s DeVeaux section raised eyebrows once last week’s Democratic primary results came in.
City Councilman Glenn Choolokian defeated incumbent Mayor Paul Dyster in 16 of the city’s 22 voting districts, and the numbers were close in five of the six districts Dyster actually won.
But at St. Raphael’s Parish Center at 1018 College Ave., it was a blowout for Dyster. He won by a landslide, defeating Choolokian by a margin of 356-164. The heavy turnout and lopsided Dyster victory may have effectively handed the embattled mayor the election, which, by unofficial tally on primary night, he led by just 73 votes.
A count of some 188 absentee ballots may change the margin or flip the winner from the apparent Dyster to Choolokian but if it stands as it is now – with Dyster ahead- it was one polling place and in fact one single voting booth that gave Dyster his narrow victory.
Was it just a coincidence that St. Raphael’s – where Dyster spent the entire day – also happens to be the Dyster family church?
And was it just a coincidence that, prior to the primary, back in May of this year, the Board of Elections decided to consolidate traditional DeVeaux polling places at the Maple Avenue School and the North Main Street VFW Hall into the parish center, reducing the available number of voting machines from four to one in the process?
No other polling place in the city attracted more than 264 voters. A total of 510 voted at the Dyster family church. A sign posted on the front lawn of the nearby home of Dyster’s father, Dr. Melvin Dyster, directed voters to the parish center. The mayor remained outside the parish center for hour after hour, buttonholing voters going in to cast their ballots.
Was Dyster gaming the system?
Stranger things have happened in Niagara Falls.
County officials told the Niagara Falls Reporter that they merged the three election districts in DeVeaux into one in order to save the taxpayers money.
Reducing the number of polling places where a candidate is strong makes it easier for a smaller number of campaign workers to monitor and keep track of how people vote.
Since there is no requirement to present ID – a campaign could also conceivably use shills to vote for people who are clearly not going to show up to vote.
In places like Chicago, even dead people have been known to vote in this way - although no one has yet offered any proof of the dead voting here.
Witnesses say that there were lines out to the street all day last Thursday at St. Raphael’s Parish Center, the former St. Theresa’s School.
The Choolokian campaign has retained the services of Williamsville attorney Thomas E. Webb Jr., who has represented numerous high profile clients in Western New York and has a special interest in election law.
Webb is seeking to have Board of Elections Commissioners Lora Allen and Jennifer Fronczak to recuse themselves from any decisions in the matter and turn the case over to the courts.
“The Republican commissioner (Fronczak) has an interest in this because it’s clear now that the Republicans have a better chance against Dyster than they would against Glenn,” said Choolokian campaign Manager Sam Archie. “It’s been tough for us to get any sort of a straight answer from the Board of Elections commissioners about anything.”
The Choolokian campaign is also very interested in the contents of approximately 188 absentee ballots already returned that will be opened and counted on Friday.
Archie pointed to a city Council race in the mid-1980s that saw incumbent Ralph Aversa narrowly lose to Renae Kimble. A recount and the opening of absentee ballots the next week gave Aversa the race, by a margin you could count on your fingers and toes.
For his part, candidate Choolokian – who gave up his city Council seat to run for mayor instead – said he was deeply disappointed by the outcome.
“Honestly, I didn’t even expect it to be close,” he said. “All you have to do is look around this city and see the deterioration that’s occurred over the past eight years.”
Choolokian wondered aloud why residents of the most heavily taxed municipality in the state, which has benefitted from a local share of nearly $200 million from Seneca Niagara Casino revenue yet remains teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, would vote to continue on with the status quo.
Why would people living in what has been determined to be “the most dangerous city” in the state of New York, one with the highest percentage of registered sex offenders per capita of anywhere in the United States, essentially vote for a continuation of these appalling conditions?
“It’s very disappointing,” Choolokian said of the apparent narrow election loss. “I just want to see what happens this week.”
What happens may be interesting.
Whether by accident or design, the polling place consolidation that led to all DeVeaux residents having to cast their ballots at the Dyster family church and the staggeringly lopsided result that tilted the election.
Had that polling booth been not considered in the election, Choolokian would be ahead by 140 votes.
Several people reported long lines at times at St. Raphael’s, the polling place in DeVeaux, typically a Dyster stronghold and the area that provided the margin of victory this time.
It is not known how many people decided to not vote because of the long lines there.
City Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Stewart III said “if people went away because of the long lines, in an area considered a Dyster stronghold, that probably favored Glenn Choolokian.”
Still it is peculiar.
The election turned on one voting booth, in one location—which happened to be the church of the candidate who got the favorable turn.
The location was one which was narrowed from three – and long lines – and double the votes were the result.
It seems strange. Perhaps it isn’t.
But with the twists and turns of politics – this one – who knows if it is something more - is at least one of the stranger turns.