BY Melissa Gerr of the Baltimore Jewish Times
State Supreme Court Justice ruled Ramapo voting materials impounded
Photo by Melissa Gerr
After 16 hours of polling that included strong voter turnout but some confusion at polls in a Tuesday referendum that pitted elements of the large Jewish community in Ramapo, N.Y., against each other and against other citizens, a state court has halted the tabulation of votes, pending a hearing on alleged voting irregularities.
Election workers now must wait at least 10 days before counting ballots. The referendum asked voters to choose between keeping the Town Board’s current system of at-large apportionment or switch to a ward-based system that critics charged would limit representation of the town’s Orthodox Jewish population to two of six voting districts. It would also increase the size of the board from five seats to seven.
The Sept. 30 vote was thrust into the national spotlight last week when Agudath Israel of America, a national organization that promotes the ideals of Orthodox Judaism, disseminated a notice urging citizens in the town — home to the heavily Jewish hamlet of Monsey and its network of yeshivas, day schools and synagogues — to vote against the ballot question. The measure would, stated the notice, “weaken the political influence of Orthodox Jews in the town by permitting them to vote only for candidates from their immediate neighborhood rather than the town as a whole.”
But the “political influence of Orthodox Jews” still hangs in the balance because local activists Michael Parietti and Robert Romanowski, the same men who fought two years to obtain the referendum vote, filed a lawsuit late Tuesday afternoon alleging “last minute changes to [voting] rules by the town clerk” that “created a cloud of suspicion over the election,” announced Parietti to a celebratory roomful of Preserve Ramapo supporters at a local tavern that night.
Town Attorney Michael Klein, who returned to the Town Hall from court Tuesday night while voters were still crowding in before the 10 p.m. deadline, explained that the lawsuit questioned the use and confirmation of affidavits for unregistered voters and the period of time absentee ballots could be counted.
Absentee ballots by state law must be postmarked by the date of election but can be received up to seven days after an election. Communication from Ramapo officials the day before the election stated that absentee ballots must be received by 5 p.m. the day of the election, which resulted in confusion of what ballots could be counted.
Affidavits were widely used during the election; they allow unregistered citizens who are at least 18 or older and swear to local residency for at least 30 days to vote. Many poll sites requested additional copies during the course of the day, but the use and confirmation requirements were unclear and varied from one poll site to another.
“Voters aren’t asked for documentation,” said Klein. “They sign the affidavit, and it’s punishable by state law if they don’t tell the truth.”
Klein added that voter claims and information are later verified by the Board of Elections before the vote can be counted.
“We found out [affidavits could be used] the afternoon before [the election],” said Parietti, which he said was much too late to be communicated for proper use at the polls.
After reviewing the claims, State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Garvey ruled late Tuesday that “all product from the election — thumb drives, absentee ballots, affidavits — are to be impounded and held by the election board in [Rockland County] in a warehouse and under the sheriff’s custody,” said Klein. Garvey adjourned the lawsuit proceedings until Oct. 10.
Ramapo has seen its share of political division and controversy, and Agudath Israel is not the first to bring national attention to conflicts in the town.
A recent hour-long report, “A Not So Simple Majority,” aired nationwide on the “This American Life” radio program detailing the declining public school system in Ramapo and the polarization that has occurred between the town’s Chasidic and haredi Orthodox communities and non-Orthodox residents over property taxes. Approximately 20,000 children attend 120 area Jewish day schools and yeshivas, compared to about 9,000 secular students in 14 public schools. But Orthodox residents have long held control over seven of nine seats on the board of the East Ramapo Central School District despite the fact that their children don’t attend public school. Many of Ramapo’s citizens have blamed the board for decimating schools’ funding and outright shuttering others.
Though the Town Board and the school board function independently, it seems the polarization of the community surrounding the latest referendum mirrors the school board fight.
“It’s 100-percent polarized between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of citizens,” said Steve White, a member of the Ramapo community since 1969 who identifies as culturally Jewish.
White is also editor of communications for the grassroots organization Power of Ten, which worked to mobilize voters in the non-Orthodox community for Tuesday’s referendum.
“Right now, they [control] all five members” of the Town Board, a supervisor and four council members, he said. “You can’t get elected to the board without going to the rabbis and getting their blessing. It’s been [that way] for at least eight elections in a row now.”
In White’s view, the Orthodox community’s public opposition toward redistricting has less to do with potential discrimination and more to do with land zoning issues.
“That’s the biggest issue in the town of Ramapo,” explained White, a veteran of the Rockland County Health Department for 10 years. “Board members, over and over again, are voting for the issue that the Chasidic community wants — to satisfy their needs regarding land use.”
Haredi Orthodox families, he pointed out, typically have many children and need to be within walking distance of synagogues.
“They want density,” he said, referencing enclaves in Monsey and the fast-growing areas of Kaser and New Square. “Instead of one, two or five unit [dwellings], they want 15 or 20 units.”
After she voted in favor of the referendum at the Town Hall poll site Tuesday morning, Claire, an active member of a local Conservative synagogue, expressed exasperation with local politics.
“I’m tired of them giving everything to the Orthodox,” said the woman, who did not want her last name to be published.
Her husband Joel, who wore a t-shirt that read “Stop Telling Lies About Israel,” added, “It’s like a shtetl.” The couple moved to the town’s Airmont community from Brooklyn 37 years ago.
“This is not why I moved to the suburbs,” said Joel.
Glen Benjamin, 52, an Airmont resident since 1965 who voted in favor of the referendum, said, “Every parcel of land has become a yeshiva, the taxes go up to support the [growth of] infrastructure. A residential neighborhood becomes a commercial zone.”
But a young Orthodox couple that lives in the same community felt otherwise. Like many other voters interviewed, the married man and woman preferred anonymity.
“We want to preserve Airmont,” said the woman. “We don’t want schools, synagogues to be controlled” by the local government.
“It seems many laws are made against the religious community,” her husband added. “A lot of hateful people don’t want us there.”
He added that as a paramedic he hears many dispatches and notes how many are complaints about neighbors and events happening at synagogues.
“They use the authority to suppress our community,” he said. “Most people are tolerant … it’s just the activists.”
Election regulations were not the only last-minute communications in Ramapo. There was a glimmer of possible compromise the day before that appeared via robocalls and a booklet that went out to hundreds of Orthodox homes. The booklet appeared on social media as well.
The booklet on the Preserve Ramapo Facebook page appeared to come from a loosely identified Jewish group. It featured a picture of scales and a shield-shaped emblem whose Hebrew phrase translates to “the great battle to save the Orthodox community of Monsey and the surrounding areas.” Along the edge of the shield was listed the communities of Airmont, Chestnut Ridge, Wesley Hills, Forshay, Spring Valley, Kaser, New Square and New Hampstead.
Several pages of graphics and text urged citizens to vote in favor of redistricting, stating that “the only way in which the Jewish community can bring back the peace and serenity is by expressing a sincere will to not only live but coexist in harmony with our neighbors.” The post suggested that a yes vote would “stop the rise and danger of anti-Semitism [in the area]; gain personal council members for your immediate area; give your neighbors the feeling of equal representation; and enable one to enjoy a life free of fears of bodily and/or monetary harm.”
Michael Castelluccio, a second-generation resident and editor of PreserveRamapo.org, was stunned by the posting.
“I don’t know who made it, but I want to thank him,” he said. “I think this was done by more than one person. … This is from the heart of the community and it expresses what I hope people feel.”