Absentee Ballots to Decide N.Y. House Race

By Keith B. Richburg and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

NEW YORK, March 31 -- A special election in Upstate New York to fill a vacant House seat, seen as an early referendum on the Obama administration, proved inconclusive Tuesday night, with the two candidates separated by just 59 votes and a lengthy process of awaiting and counting absentee ballots set to begin.

With all precincts reporting, Democrat Scott Murphy, a venture capitalist, had 77,344 votes. Jim Tedisco, the Republican leader in the state assembly, had 77,285.

Election officials and outside observers said that about 5,900 absentee ballots had been received as of Monday. But about 10,000 absentee ballots were mailed, and those still out have another week to return -- 13 days for ballots from overseas and from members of the military -- as long as they were postmarked by Tuesday.

Steven Greenberg, of the Siena Research Institute of Siena College, said that slightly more than 1,000 military ballots and slightly fewer than 1,000 overseas ballots were mailed out.

"Florida 2000, Minnesota 2008 and now the New York 20th District 2009," Greenberg said, citing two previous electoral deadlocks.

Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College of the City University of New York, said, "You may be looking at this for days."

But Henry A. Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist in New York, was ready to crown a winner: "This is a very good day for election lawyers."

Indeed, even before the polls closed, a state Supreme Court judge issued an injunction Tuesday to forbid the counting of absentee ballots and any other paper ballots outside election board offices. The injunction, requested by two Republican officials, comes on the heels of a still-undecided Senate election in Minnesota that was complicated by precincts' differing standards for counting absentee ballots.

Tedisco and Murphy were vying to replace Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand in the House; she was appointed to the Senate in January. The 20th Congressional District -- which includes most of the Albany suburbs and stretches north to Lake Placid -- has 70,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, and former president George W. Bush carried the district twice, but Obama won it last year.

Muzzio said, "The fact that Murphy has any kind of lead at all in that district, given the Republican advantage, doesn't bode well for the Republicans."

"From 21 points down to securing a majority of the vote tonight, congratulations to Scott Murphy," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele had made recapturing this traditionally GOP seat a priority. He heavily invested here and personally visited twice to campaign. He released no statement on the race Tuesday night.

The two parties, and various interest groups and unions, spent millions on the month-long campaign.

Kane reported from Washington.

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