Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Subpoenas in Contested State Senate Race Draw Anger by Jonathan P. Hicks -

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The unresolved State Senate contest between Senator Frank Padavan, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, James F. Gennaro, moves on Tuesday into a Queens courtroom, where nearly a dozen college students have been subpoenaed to verify their residences.

Republican lawyers have challenged the votes of students, mostly from St. John’s University, saying that they filled out affidavit ballots with addresses that were not their permanent residences. In the paper ballot count, Mr. Padavan is leading by about 600 votes, but about 1,000 more ballots remained to be counted and the validity of an additional 2,000 must still be reviewed.

While the challenges and subpoenas have angered students, who are being forced to appear during exams, they underscore the high stakes attached to winning the Senate seat in Queens. The Democrats now have at least 32 seats in the Senate, giving them a majority for the first time in more than 40 years. But three dissident Democrats have yet to pledge their support for the would-be majority leader, Malcolm A. Smith. That limits him, at the moment, to 29 votes in the 62-member body.

A victory by Mr. Gennaro would bring the Republicans down to 29 seats and provide Mr. Smith with 30 votes. One of the dissident Democrats, Senator Rubén Díaz Sr., says he would not vote for a Republican leader. So, at the very least, a Gennaro win would improve the prospects for Mr. Smith.

Steven H. Richman, the general counsel at the New York City Board of Elections, said that under state law, a student can vote from a polling place near either his or her permanent address or a college address.

“A college student has the option,” Mr. Richman said. “If you’re living on campus, you have the right to register and vote from that district. Or you can register from your parents’ address. You just can’t vote in two places.”

Democratic officials said they were incensed by the subpoenas. “It’s outrageous that this is the lesson that Republicans want to teach young voters,” said, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They are teaching students that they can be dragged into court just for fulfilling their civic duty. It’s absolutely outrageous.”

In an interview, Mr. Padavan defended the issuing of the subpoenas. “These students have permanent residences that are great distances from the 11th Senatorial District, as evidenced by their driver’s licenses and other materials,” he said. “The question is whether they are valid voters. And if they are not valid voters, their vote shouldn’t count. It’s as simple as that.”

Cristina Fernandez, a student at St. John’s, said by phone that it was more convenient to vote near the school. “Even though my parents live in Manhattan, I live right here in Queens and didn’t see any reason to vote back in Manhattan when I could register to vote right here in the neighborhood,” said Ms. Fernandez, a senior majoring in accounting.

“I was so excited to vote this year,” she added. “But then I had some man showing up on my doorstep issuing me a subpoena because the Republicans are trying to challenge my vote. So, I have to go to court in the middle of finals, instead of studying. It makes you not want to vote ever again.”