Friday, Sept 18th, I attended the opening and counting of absentee, military, and affidavit ballots for all races in Niagara Falls at the Niagara County Board of Elections.
I was there in the corner of mayoral candidate Glenn Choolokian, along with our attorney Thomas E. Webb Jr.
With only 73 votes separating Choolokian and Dyster, 189 absentee ballots returned, 10 of those rejected by the Board of Elections, and Choolokian vowing to fight to the very end, there was much anticipation of this event.
The process that must be followed by state law is foggy.
Most of the specifics are set by each county’s Board of Elections, with the two Commissioners and staff members of each county Board appointed by the Chairmen of each of the two major political parties or hired at their approval, and with election law attorneys in Niagara County being in short supply, there was a good deal of uncertainty as to what to expect.
Anyone that says the process is not designed, by those in power, to stay in power; anyone that says the process is not designed to keep out those who do not serve at the will of the political bosses, the “three men in a room”; anyone who says the deck is not stacked, is crazy.
Attending the procedure for Paul Dyster were three attorneys and numerous political operatives including Craig Touma, Johnny Destino, Jason Caferella, County Legislator Dennis Virtuoso on his own behalf, Henry Wojtaszek and Vince Sandonato presumably on John Accardo’s behalf, Republican mayoral candidate Robert Pascoal on his own behalf, and representatives from several media outlets.
We were led from the lobby back in to the conference room by Democratic Commissioner Laura Allen with staff members in the room ready to begin the proceedings.
Dyster employee Johnny Destino, who is also an attorney, was already back in the room having a discussion with the staff members who would be conducting the process.
Many there were of the opinion that, as an employee and operative of one of the candidates, he has about as much business being back there alone with the staff members as his Republican counterparts had, allowing themselves back in to the Board of Election’s inner offices for private discussions with their Commissioner before proceedings began.
In fact, while still in the lobby, it was Democratic County Legislature Dennis Virtuoso that publicly blew up at Commissioner Laura Allen saying “Those people are political operatives. They were allowed to just let themselves back there alone and no one stopped them. I want something done about that.”
Commissioner Allen responded “I will” and led us back as a group, but to my observation nothing could be done after the fact.
The next six hours were filled with a lot of repetitive numbers and tallying as staffers, going one precinct at a time, would pass all the ballots to be opened around the room for inspection by each candidate and their representatives before being opened. One staffer would read off the votes on each absentee ballot that was not objected to by any party, while another staffer would keep count, as did all other parties.
As the city-wide count start, in the LaSalle area, the will of the voters was immediately clear.
21-13 in favor of Choolokian after 4 precincts.
29-13 Choolokian after 5 precincts.
34-16 Choolokian after 6 precincts.
After all absentee ballots across the 7 precincts of the LaSalle area of Niagara Falls were counted, minus any objections, Choolokian was beating Dyster by a 2-1 margin, by a vote of 36-19. With all parties agreeing to skip to the 6th legislative district, mostly downtown, that margin narrowed but Choolokian maintained a significant lead of more around 50% on Dyster. 61-41 Choolokian after 14 of 22 precincts.
With Commissioner Allen stopping in to inform everyone that we will not likely be able to finish the counting tonight, which she had mentioned at 2pm as a possibility, she made it clear we would likely be breaking for the weekend. With Dyster’s primary opponent – Choolokian - absent from the room momentarily, Craig Touma, attorney and campaign manager for Dyster insisted that we stay and count precinct 5 before breaking for the weekend. As Allen began to agree, his motivation became clear.
They knew that they had done everything humanly possible to stack the deck in their favor in the DeVeaux area, a longtime Dyster stronghold, which was up next in precinct 5. They knew many months ago that this long time Dyster stronghold was the home of their opponent Choolokian who should do well in the area. They knew all of that when they closed 2 long time polling places, with numerous residents who should have received cards in the mail, claiming to be unclear that their long time voting locations had changed. They knew they had moved both of those locations to the Dyster family church at St. Raphael’s (formerly St. Theresa’s), they knew Dyster employee Lisa Vitello has been inside the building all day long as a poll watcher, they knew Dyster himself had been allowed to walk back and forth in front of the building all day long with other campaigns being made to stay back 100 feet, and they knew that their efforts at this one location succeeded in turning the will of all other voters in Niagara Falls completely on its head on primary night, and by the very narrowest of margins.
They knew all of that and Dyster’s political operatives, led by Craig Touma, wanted to ensure they stayed late enough to count DeVeaux where they had stacked the odds so heavily in Dyster’s favor as to all but ensure a victory, and they thought counting just DeVeaux before breaking for the entire weekend would get Dyster past the needed threshold to ensure and declare his victory.
The argument that reached its boiling point here, spilled out into the hallway during the break, into the Commissioner’s offices, and back to the conference room again. Choolokian and his team, argued repeatedly that the fair thing to do for all parties involved, staff included, was to either break now for the weekend or stay and finish the count in its entirety tonight.
The Commissioners, however, were steadfast in their insistence that they had to “do what the majority wanted”. Our repeated insistence that Craig Touma seemed to be the only person in this “majority” seemed to fall on deaf ears. Until that is, County Legislator Dennis Virtuoso had seemed to appear to have, once again, seen enough of the bias when he asked Choolokian directly “They’re finishing tonight, right? So what’s the problem?”
The shouting match that erupted across the packed conference table with Republican Party City Chairman Vince Sandonato and Democratic operative Craig Touma teaming up on one side, against Glenn Choolokian and his team on the other side of the table, apparently not being enough of a clear indication, Choolokian responded, “No Dennis, they’re going to stay and do DeVeaux to try to get his threshold and then make us all take off work and come back on Monday.”
Did they know that their opponent, a sitting Niagara Falls City Councilman, had a City Council meeting Monday and would not be able to attend? Did they hope they would be able to finish the count without him in secret, as it were?
We will never know.
To his credit, Legislator Virtuoso excused himself from the room, as the staff tried repeatedly to quickly reconvene the proceedings, in accordance with Touma’s wishes, with Choolokian’s team repeatedly objecting strictly to get clarification before we began.
“We are completely fine with breaking now out of respect for the staff, and we are completely fine with staying until the count is finished. Anything in between is unacceptable.”
A few minutes later, when Virtuoso returned, Commissioner Laura Allen quickly followed to briefly inform everyone that “we will be staying and finishing the entire vote tonight.”
The next two hours played out exactly as expected. Just as they had planned, DeVeaux was a landslide in Dyster’s favor, with the remaining precincts being a very close split one way or another.
When it was all said and done, aside from ballots that are legally held three business days because of any party filing an objection, Choolokian had once again come out ahead in nearly every single precinct save for DeVeaux. Choolokian held on to an absentee ballot victory of 91-80.
That margin of victory not being enough on its own overturn the city-wide 73 vote lead of Dyster, Choolokian spoke to the media afterwards.
But once again his words were not exactly music to the ears of the political bosses.
Choolokian expressed that “tonight was a victory.” While he wished more people would have come out to vote on primary night, he said “I’ve knocked on over 8,000 doors across the city in the last 7 months and every door I went to almost everyone expressed that they were not happy with the direction of the city and they were ready for a change.”
But while the people said they wanted change, when it came to action it was just not enough. A Dyster victory in the Democratic primary seems likely.
And the people of Niagara Falls – Democrats at least by the narrowest of margins – seem to have opted for no change, more of the same.
Let us see what the people in the general election when everyone can vote will do.
The counting went on for 6 hours in an un- air conditioned room, where the outside temperature was about 80 degrees and inside probably over 90 degrees.