By Joseph Spector and Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- The battle for control of the state Senate will soon head to the courtroom as Republicans and Democrats are contesting hundreds of ballots in two undecided races.
In a Hudson Valley race, Democrats are accusing Republicans of purposely delaying the vote count as Democrat Terry Gipson holds about a 1,700-vote lead over Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie.
After counting began last week, about 640 absentee ballots had been counted as of Tuesday afternoon in the 41st Senate District race. That's roughly 7 percent of the 9,700 absentees returned to the Dutchess County Board of Elections, said Democratic elections commissioner Fran Knapp.
"They are continuing to make a lot of challenges, and they are mainly to Democratic voters," Knapp said.
Republican county commissioner Eric Haight said the county is moving as fast as the lawyers for both sides will let them.
"We're going the pace the attorneys have set for the respective campaigns," Haight said.
Knapp said the county has had to hire as many as eight part-time workers at $14.50 an hour to make copies of upwards of 40,000 pieces of papers at the request of the lawyers.
Representatives from both sides have to be at the copy machine according to court order, she said.
Republicans denied that they are slowing the vote tally in the Saland race and in the tight contest between Republican George Amedore and Democrat Cecilia Tkaczyk.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Amedore held a 365-vote lead with about 65 percent of the total vote in Ulster County completed. The other counties in the five-county district that runs through the Albany area and into the Catskills have already finished their absentee-vote counting.
There were about 1,100 absentee ballots remaining in the Amedore-Tkaczyk race; about 10,000 were cast through the district.
Senate Democrats said Tuesday that Amedore's lead is "deceiving" because Republicans have contested about 500 absentee and affidavit ballots. Democrats have challenged about 140 ballots.
A court hearing to review the disputed ballots in the Amedore-Tkaczyk race is slated for Thursday in Montgomery County. A court hearing in the Saland-Gipson race is scheduled for Friday.
"The numbers are deceiving," Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, who heads the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, said Tuesday on 1300-AM (WGDJ) in Albany. "What the Republicans are doing is objecting to ballots in an enormous volume."
Either candidate's legal team can challenge a ballot, such as the form not being filled out properly or questions about a voter's residency. A judge later decides whether the contested ballots are to be counted.
Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, said Republicans are objecting to ballots with errors or ones that list an address from outside of district. In particular, Libous said many affidavit ballots listed a New York City address.
"We're objecting to affidavit ballots that are we believe not legal ballots," Libous said on WGDJ. "For instance, there are a lot of ballots where people's addresses are New York City and they voted in Ulster County."
Republicans hold a 33-29 seat majority, but lost several races on Election Day. As it stands, Republicans have control of 31 seats, including one Democrat, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who said he would vote with them. Democrats have 30 because the Senate is adding a 63rd seat in January.
A decision on the races would need to be completed by January, when the new Legislature is seated. Judges could rule to speed up the process - something that was done in 2010 when control of the Senate was also unsettled after Election Day.
"It could go on for another couple of weeks. It really depends on how much control the court wants to exercise," said Lawrence A. Mandelker, a Manhattan-based elections attorney, who is not involved in either race.