A still-undecided state Senate contest in Queens turned ugly Tuesday as Democrats accused Sen. Frank Padavan's supporters of launching a massive effort to discard paper ballots cast by minority voters.
Preliminary results showed the Republican senator, who has represented the 11th Senatorial District for more than 35 years, with a 732-vote lead over his Democratic challenger, City Councilman James Gennaro.
That made the race too close to call, since more than 8,300 paper ballots - 10% of the turnout - had not been counted.
They included absentee, military and emergency ballots, along with some 4,500 affidavit ballots filled out at the polls by people whose names were missing from the rolls.
Affidavit ballots are generally from first-time voters. Given the huge turnout Barack Obama's candidacy sparked, Gennaro believes most of those affidavits are Democrats.
Last Wednesday, a recanvass of the machine tally reduced Padavan's lead to just 503 votes.
The next day, some two dozen Board of Elections staff members and representatives of the two candidates began counting the paper.
Gennaro's people say they have not challenged a single ballot the board's staff has ruled eligible. They say Padavan's people, on the other hand, have tried to disqualify an astonishing number of Hispanic and Asian surnamed voters.
"No one is trying to disenfranchise anyone," said Vincent Tabone, executive vice chairman of the Queens Republicans.
"They [the Democrats] are behind, so they want every vote to count, whether it's valid or not," Tabone said. "Our lawyers and volunteers are going through the affidavits to make sure they meet the requirements of the statutes."
And they are doing that with extraordinary diligence.
There were, for instance, the 22 ballots the Republicans challenged from people who gave as their address the huge Creedmor State Psychiatric Hospital in the district.
"There are several longterm Group Homes on that campus," Reich said. "They challenged everyone from there who voted."
Tabone acknowledged the blanket Creedmor challenge, but added, "They all put one address. If you're not permanently residing there, you can't vote."
Then there was the case of Margarita Pillot of Hillside Ave. She filed a temporary absentee ballot, stating she would be in Ohio on Election Day working for "a political campaign." The Republicans challenged her vote. They said she failed to list an employer or the dates she was out of town.
Then there were Paul and Roxanne Cheung, of 157th St. in Flushing. They also voted by affidavit, claiming they moved recently. The Republicans challenged their votes because they neglected to write down their previous address.
Reich says he has a dozen examples of similar minor omissions by white or Republican affidavit voters that Padavan's people did not challenge.
The two election commissioners overseeing the count - one Democrat, one Republican - have split along party lines on most of the disputed ballots.
Late Tuesday, with only about a quarter of the 8,300 paper ballots reviewed, the box containing challenged votes was up to 120.
With Democrats enjoying a slim lead in the Senate for the first time in decades, both sides consider the Padavan-Gennaro contest crucial. Look for this one to end up in court.