Remembering Al Lowenstein: NYC’s Disgraceful—and Long—History of Election Mishaps

The Observer’s editors take a look back at other Election Day mishaps and focus on the 1972 congressional primary of the late Congressman Al Lowenstein. It’s a “must” read:

“We were reminded of New York’s sordid history of “voting irregularities” during a lunch two days after the primary with the legendary trial attorney David Ellenhorn. Mr. Ellenhorn was a young partner at Kronish Lieb in 1972 when he got a call from former Congressman Allard K. Lowenstein.

Lowenstein, a founder and the driving force behind the anti-war movement’s “Dump Johnson” movement in 1968, had been elected to the House of Representatives that year from Nassau County. Two years later, after being named No. 7 on President Nixon’s “enemies list,” he saw his district disappear in a gerrymandered reapportionment. With his wife and three young children, he moved to Brooklyn’s not-yet-gentrified Fort Greene and took on one of Congress’ most senior and influential Democrats: John Rooney. And in so doing, Lowenstein also took on the Brooklyn Democratic machine and its powerful leader, Meade Esposito.

Despite an influx of hundreds of youthful volunteers, celebrities and newspaper endorsements, Lowenstein lost the Democratic primary—by 890 votes out of more than 30,000 cast. Convinced that the election had been stolen—what losing candidate doesn’t believe that?—Lowenstein turned to Ellenhorn and a young Kronish Lieb associate named Harvey Lippman to prove it—in court.

Mr. Ellenhorn reminded us that dozens of campaign volunteers spent the hot summer combing the voter registration books, examining the “buff cards”—the signature cards named for the color of the thick paper—and looking for patterns of voter fraud. They documented hundreds of instances of dead people being allowed to vote and dozens of buff cards where voters had the chutzpah to sign the buff cards and vote—twice in a single day. And all of these irregularities happened in Rooney-friendly districts and under the watchful eyes of Election Board factotums.

Ellenhorn’s young investigators found a different pattern of abuse in Lowenstein-friendly districts. There they discovered a pattern of voting machines breaking down or machines not showing up at all on Election Day. The wait to vote lasted up to five hours (in Cadman Plaza). But most often, voters would show up at their regular polling place and be told that their buff cards were lost—that they were not registered—and be turned away.

After a trial before a Supreme Court justice who just happened to be Meade Esposito’s personal lawyer and not surprisingly ruled against Lowenstein, Ellenhorn appealed and prevailed before New York’s highest court. The Court of Appeals threw the primary result out—declaring “massive irregularities”—and ordered a new election. Unfortunately, Meade Esposito’s machine—and his control of the Board of Elections—was able to repeat the same tricks that led to the first stolen election.”

Note- I ask any reader who was involved in the 1972 Lowenstein cases to contact me at jwice@buffalo.edu

 

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