Brian Sharp, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Published 10:58 a.m. ET June 18, 2021
With the possible exception of the crowded Rochester City Council race, maybe a County Legislature seat or two, residents should know the winners and losers of this year’s primaries on election night.
That was a given until the pandemic led many to mail in their ballot rather than casting it in person during last year’s elections. State law stalls counting of absentee ballots for a week after polls close. And that delayed 2020 primary races from being decided until early July.
The number of Monroe County voters casting absentee ballots in this primary election has fallen back close to pre-pandemic levels — putting the focus back on Election Day.
And that has Mayor Lovely Warren’s campaign raising concern, with just days to go, that changes in city polling sites “clearly creates an inequitable situation for lower income, minority and elderly voters.”
Warren campaign lawyer William Bauer delivered that message in a letter emailed to Monroe County elections commissioners on Wednesday.
Polling sites for the primary largely mirror those of the 2020 general election, elections officials say, were affirmed in notices mailed to voters in April, published online in May and verifiable online.
They argue the Warren campaign’s assertions or overstated, and might be politically motivated.
“It’s not politics from my standpoint,” Bauer said. “It just seems some of the changes are puzzling, and need explanation.”
In his letter, Bauer asserts that 71 city polling locations changed since the 2019 primary elections, overwhelmingly impacting people of color, the elderly and those with limited mobility. Last year’s primary voting sites were drastically cut due to the pandemic.
Elections officials put the number of polling site changes since 2019 at 36, of which 19 declined or did not respond to requests to participate. Two others permanently closed.
Bauer urged returning the polling locations to senior housing facilities, which have been a stronghold for Warren in past elections. But the two he highlighted in his letter, Seneca Towers and Jack Kennedy Memorial Apartments, either declined or did not respond to the Board of Elections requests to be a polling site when asked this spring, elections officials said.
Peggy Hill, CEO of Rochester Management, which owns Seneca Towers, confirmed in a statement that, back in March, staff turned down a request to host a primary polling site “based on the group-gathering precautions in place at the time … and asked that the building be considered in the future.
“We very much hope the community will consider using Seneca Towers as a polling place again soon,” Hill continued. “For next week, we have free transportation in place to help Seneca Towers residents get to the polls.”
Warren has called a news conference for Friday afternoon at Seneca Towers “to denounce voter suppression and call on the Board of Elections to restore polling sites.”
“It would be impossible to change anything at this point,” said Republican elections commissioner Lisa Nicolay, as switching would not only require moving staff and equipment but notifying voters of a new location.
Warren alerted elections officials of possible concerns back on June 4, and requested a list of polling locations, said Democratic elections commissioner Jackie Ortiz. She provided the mayor with the list that same day, she said, and the mayor told her she would follow up with any questions. Ortiz said she heard nothing further until receiving Bauer’s letter on Wednesday, and then a couple of phone calls Thursday.
As of Thursday, 6,149 Monroe County voters had requested an absentee ballot; 2,175 had returned one (of which 935 live in the city). Nearly 3,200 had voted early.
For perspective, 20,573 people voted in the 2017 mayoral primary. And, last year — which drew higher turnout being a presidential election year — nearly 80,000 Monroe County voters cast their primary ballot by mail.
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