A secret write-in campaign engineered by Pleasantville Board of Education member Angela Vella in last month’s delayed village elections has rankled officials and lit up local social media boards by residents questioning the ethics of the move.
It was recently learned that there had been 125 write-in votes submitted for the Sept. 15 election, 114 of them cast for Vella. The only two candidates who submitted petitions by last February’s deadline to appear on the ballot for the pair of open Village Board seats were one-term incumbent Nicole Asquith and Pleasantville Chamber of Commerce Vice President Paul Alvarez. Former trustee Steve Lord decided against running for re-election.
Alvarez collected 282 votes while Asquith picked up 169 votes in the election.
Vella said last week she decided to move forward with a write-in campaign because of what she described as the Village Board’s failure to publicize the election and a more general lack of transparency, particularly related to the downtown civic space and Manville Road improvement projects.
She said she received a postcard in the mail on Sept. 12 from the Westchester County Board of Elections that the election was taking place in three days. Vella claimed that she hadn’t thought about a write-in campaign until then.
“The board didn’t do anything to let people know and they only mentioned it once or twice in the meeting before the vote,” Vella said. “Many people didn’t even know there was an election.”
She reached out to friends and acquaintances in the few days before the election and asked them to write her name on the ballot.
“The biggest reason I did it was to send a message to the Village Board that they lack transparency with elections and with other issues and of their unwillingness to actually listen to a large portion of Pleasantville residents,” Vella said.
The Examiner reported on Feb. 3 that Asquith and Paul Alvarez were running for the two board seats, with Lord deciding to bow out and not seek another term. A formal announcement was made at the Feb. 10 Village Board meeting about the election that was at that time scheduled for Mar. 18.
Vella raised concerns about the late timing of Lord’s Feb. 10 announcement, contending that it gave a resident interested in running for the Village Board only two days to obtain at least 100 valid signatures on a nominating petition by the Feb. 12 deadline.
Some viewed the write-in campaign as specifically targeting Asquith, who was surprised to learn about it last week.
“The news that there was a secret write-in campaign in an attempt to unseat me caught me off-guard, as it did the rest of the Village Board, who knew nothing about it until the election results were revealed,” Asquith said.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo postponed March village elections across the state until Apr. 28. When he deemed that it still wasn’t safe to hold them, village elections were postponed to June and then again to Sept. 15.
Turnout was expected to be low because of the unusually-timed election and some residents perhaps not wanting to come out for what was believed to be an uncontested race.
Mayor Peter Scherer said he had been asked by residents before the election if it was necessary to stand in line to vote in a public place during a pandemic. He called it “an undisclosed effort” to promote another candidate.
An undisclosed write-in campaign “fails any reasonable standard for election transparency,” he said. If anyone is interested in running in an election, they could visit the county Board of Elections or subscribe to the village’s newsfeed.
“People have a right to write in candidates, but in this case, it was taken advantage of – the fact that people assumed they didn’t have to vote,” Scherer said.
Officials learned of the situation after the Board of Elections sent the official tally to the village before last week’s meeting. There was surprise that Vella collected 114 of the 125 write-in votes.
“I believe it was unknown to the community at large,” Scherer said. “It’s important for folks to realize what’s happened here.”
Asquith said Vella should have publicized her write-in effort.
“I welcome an open discussion. I encourage anyone in the village to run against me or anyone else on the Village Board,” she said. “But this should be done publicly, so that the candidates have an opportunity to air their views, and so that the public has a chance to vote, knowing who the candidates are.”
Vella has received significant blowback for undertaking the write-in campaign even though she said her decision to run was made only days before the election.
“I did it knowing that I wasn’t being as open about it as I could’ve been but it was a choice that I made,” Vella said. “People may not like it but there wasn’t anything illegal or unethical about it. It was my strategy to try to win and it was a bad strategy. If I were to decide to run for a Village Board seat again, I would consider running a campaign out in the open.”
Alvarez said an important lesson was learned about voting in any election
“Everyone should vote no matter if an election is uncontested or not,” he said. “Anything can happen.”