Observers Clash with Ballot Counters; Recount of Close Greenwich BOE Vote Still a Cliffhanger

On Thursday Greenwich Town Hall was the venue for a recount of ballots from Tuesday’s Board of Education contest. The people counting votes were paid for their efforts.

The recount was triggered according to a formula, which head moderator Sharon Vecchiola explained was automatic when the difference between between two candidates is narrow.

“For an automatic recount, it’s one half of one percent of the total number of votes cast for that office,” she said.

Tuesday night around 11:00pm Republican candidate Megan Galletta was ahead by 11 votes. By the end of tallying Wednesday morning, Cody Kittle was ahead 36 votes, with a total of 8,336 to Galletta’s 8,300.

Independent Kara Philbin garnered 1,493 votes.

The other endorsed Republican, Michael-Joseph Mercanti-Anthony had the most votes of all the BOE candidates with 9,276. (The two Democratic candidates were running for two slots and both were assured those).

On Wednesday evening, Republican Registrar of Voters Fred DeCaro alerted all the BOE candidates that there would be a recount on Thursday.

A poll worker counting ballots in foreground, with Jackie Homan, Megan Galletta and State Rep Kimberly Fiorello (R-149) observing. Nov 4, 2021
In the downstairs cafeteria at town hall, groups of three counted absentee ballots while observers looked on including State Rep Kimberly Fiorello. Nov 4, 2021
Tables with three counters each recounted the BOE ballots including Leora Levy stood by. Nov 4, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager
After some shouting Greenwich Police responded to town hall during the Board of Education recount. Nov 4, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager

The recount took place in two rooms, with in-person ballots being recounted in the town hall meeting.

Head Moderator Sharon Vecchiolla and both Republican Registrar Fred DeCaro and Democratic Registrar Mary Hegarty were present, though on occasion one would step out of the room briefly.

Some of the people observing the counting included outgoing BOE member Peter Sherr, Greenwich Patriots Jackie Homan, State Rep Kimberly Fiorello (D-149), RTC chair Dan Quigley, Town Clerk Budkins, Ed Dadakis, Rich DiPreta, Ms Galletta, and write-in candidate Kara Philbin.

Also attending to observe was Leora Levy, Republican National Committeewoman, who attended briefly. She shared her reason for coming.

“I’m here as a concerned citizen,” Levy said. “I thank all the people doing the counting. I think they are providing a service to the community and are selfless. Any concern I’ve had has been addressed.”

In the town hall basement cafeteria more teams of three counted the absentee ballots, while for a time observers included State Rep Kimberly Fiorello who was video recording one group of three as they counted ballots.

The counting of absentee ballots was moderated by Harry Fisher who was also the moderator of all absentee ballots on Tuesday.

After three counters and several observers disagreed about a particular ballot Mr. Fisher resolved the situation. He explained that one ballot had five votes for BOE, with one crossed out.

“You do your best to measure intent,” he said. “We encourage everybody to ask questions. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Mr. DeCaro said moderators were chosen to do the recount because they were familiar with everything in the blue bins and absentee ballot counters chosen because they’re used to judging the intent of votes.

“Those are the ballots more likely to have marks on them,” Fisher said. “And some people wrote in Ms Philbin but put her name in the wrong place.”

DeCaro said sometimes voters fill in the wrong oval or change their mind and write a note with instructions on their intent. He said while groups of three do the counting, they look for two people to agree.

“Typically all three agree,” he said. “Anything can be escalated to the head moderator, Ms Vecchiola, who has 24 years experience.”

While some of the observers were peppering the trio of counters with questions, Mr. DeCaro said ideally they ask him or the head moderator.

“I’m a big proponent of sunshine,” he said. “It’s okay for them to ask questions as long as they’re still allowing us to get our work done.”

After Ms Levy departed, Ms Fiorello, Ms Galletta and Ms Homan gathered around one a table where the trio of counters were discussing the intent of a particular ballot in which the voter wrote Ms Philbin’s name by Ms Galletta’s box and filled in Ms Galletta’s oval. The voter also filled in the ovals for Mr. Mercanti-Anthony and Mr. Kittle.

Ms Galletta said a vote should go to her. Voices were raised.

Galletta said that her name was on the ballot and Mr. Richman raised his voice and said his name was on a ballot too.

“That’s my box,” Ms Galletta shouted. “I’m tired of the men pushing the women around.”

“If you’re going to disagree with something, I’m going to ask you to take it outside the building,” Vecchiola said after there was shouting.

“This is a very fair and controlled process. It’s not fair for you to express your opinion on intent,” Vecchiola added. “You got to express yourself – I don’t fully agree it was helpful to the process.”

“I want to discuss the process,” Fiorello said.

“This is not the time,” Vecchiola said.

“Your comments are close to intimidating the moderator,” said Democratic Registrar Mary Hegarty.

“If there is any more interference I’m going to have to ask you to leave or stand outside the door. It’s not fair to the poll workers,” she said.

A few minutes later a Greenwich Police officer arrived.

At the end of the afternoon, Mr. DeCaro said the recount would not be complete by the end of the day and would resume on Friday, Nov 5.

Registrar Mary Hergarty read aloud a paragraph from the Recanvass Procedure Manual that talked about attempts to intimidate the Moderator. Also, per the manual, all recanvass procedures shall be open to public observation; however, no member of the public can actively participate or interfere with the conduct of the recanvass.

There was disagreement about whether Jackie Homan was allowed to photograph a ballot in question, and Ms Homan went down the hall to ask Registrar Fred DeCaro if she could photograph a ballot in dispute. She returned with a note saying from DeCaro, indeed it was alright to take the above photo. The instructions state that for Board of Education, “Four to Be Elected, Not More than Two from one Party.People vote for up to four candidates – any four; party is irrelevant. Only two from each party can be elected. A vote for all three Republicans on the ballot is valid.) The voter filled in Galletta’s oval but also wrote Kara Philbin’s name in Galletta’s box.

After the recount stopped for the day, Mr. DeCaro explained in an email the decision about the one ballot that caused tempers to rise.

“It is my understanding the vote was given to the write-in candidate,” he said. “The Head Moderator is given the authority to make the decision on matters like this.  To my knowledge, there have been no other individual votes raised to this level of concern.  We know what district the vote was cast in and can locate the ballot for re-inspection if a) a single vote was the eventual difference and b) research and consultation with the secretary of the state necessitated a change.”

The recount is processing almost 16,000 ballots in a period of two days. 

“We are grateful for all of the poll workers who step up and care enough about fair play and free elections, even when a single decision on a single ballot can lead to incredible scrutiny, with no particular reward for perfection year after year,” he said, adding,  “Our poll workers are some of the most selfless individuals I have ever met.  Who else would wake up the day after completing a 20-hour election and enthusiastically say ‘yes’ to an 8:00am email saying we need you to come help us recount every ballot 24 hours later?”

Also, after the recount had stopped for the day Ms Fiorello reached out to say, “The recount is a vital part of close elections and we owe a debt of gratitude to the poll workers who gave their time, energy and attention for the sake of the election process.”

….Stay tuned

Update: State Rep Fiorello said she was not videotaping poll workers re-counting ballots but rather taking a series of photos with her cell phone.

Also, the story was updated with Fred DeCaro’s explanation of the decision process on the absentee ballot where the voter filled in 3 Republican BOE candidate ovals, and also wrote in Kara Philbin.

Also, after the recount stopped for the day, Ms Fiorello reached out to say she had left the room to see Mr. DeCaro, not to ask about taking photos, but to seek out Mr. DeCaro’s opinion on the particular ballot.

“His is professional judgement was required,” she said. “Fred and I returned to the room, wherein Fred had a conversation with Sharon (Vecchiola) and Mary (Hegarty). The conclusion of which was that the Mary and Fred agreed that the ballot should be counted for both Kara and Megan, but they did not want to overrule (Ms Vecchiola), so that ballot was put aside in case the final count is very close, they would return to it.”