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Turnout turnaround: Saranac Lake vote count is more than triple last village election

Voters line up in the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium Tuesday to cast their ballots for the Saranac Lake Village Board of Trustees election. (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

(NOTICE ON RESULTS: Wednesday’s Enterprise print edition went to press before Saranac Lake village polls closed at 9 p.m. Tuesday, and absentee ballot counting took hours after that. Election results are posted on the paper’s website this morning, and a story on the results will be in Thursday’s print edition.)

SARANAC LAKE — A steady stream of village residents lined up — albeit 6 feet apart from each other — to vote Tuesday in the election for village Board of Trustees. Over the course of nine hours, they kept coming.

Three hours after the polls opened at noon, election inspector Diane Thoma said the last she’d heard there had been about 375 absentee ballots turned in. On top of that, by 6 p.m. there had been more than 400 walk-in voters, according to village Clerk Kareen Tyler. By 8 p.m. there had been more than 450 in-person voters, and Tyler was excited for the strong show of democracy.

Thus, with three hours to go, the turnout had already more than tripled that of two years ago, when about 250 people voted as Mayor Clyde Rabideau and trustee candidates Melinda Little and Patrick Murphy ran uncontested in March 2018. In March 2016’s four-way race for two seats, the leading winner got 400 votes and the last-place candidate got 188. The 2014 election, also a mayoral contest, drew just over 500 votes total, which was considered low at the time. By contrast, the March 1963 election drew 1,862 votes, according to Enterprise history columnist Howard Riley, who won a seat on the board that year.

Much has changed in the six months since this election was originally scheduled for March 18 and the Enterprise hosted a debate March 11 between the three candidates then running to fill two open seats on the board: Fred Balzac (Green), and incumbents Tom Catillaz and Rich Shapiro (both Democrats). That was before COVID-19 postponed the election to Sept. 15, before the pandemic and the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests changed the landscape of the country, before this race started gaining traction and before Trevor Sussey, a registered Democrat, threw his wool hat into the ring as a write-in candidate.

Eighteen people attended that debate, less than half of the number who sat in the audience in the same Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium, 6 feet apart, when the board restarted in-person meetings in mid-July. For the last few months, the race has become galvanized around issues that have drawn increasingly larger numbers to board meetings, even as the physical meetings have been harder to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Members of the High Peaks DSA, a new local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, have come to meetings and repeatedly voiced concerns about village police reform, the hiring of outside police consulting agency Lexipol, and the as-yet-unopened Adirondack Pregnancy Center. High Peaks DSA publicly endorsed both Balzac and Sussey.

In late June, the village was rocked by racist graffiti on a railroad bridge. As a direct result, Adirondack Diversity Initiative Director Nicky Hylton-Patterson moved out of the village. Separately, Trustee Patrick Murphy suddenly resigned in late July, his position filled by Zelda Newman.

Which is all to say that an election that garnered tepid interest six months ago is now hotly contested on the streets of the village, in the pages of this newspaper and inside the Harrietstown Town Hall, where the vote took place.

“I feel like the interests of the people with money are getting too much attention,” said Mark Boyer after he voted. He said affordable housing and environmental concerns were reasons he voted.

“We need change,” said Tracey Moody after she voted. “My fifth great-grandfather founded this town,” she said. “We need good things. There’s too much hatred in this world.”

Sunita Halasz thought that voting in this election was so important that she voted twice — the first time by absentee ballot back in May, and the second time in person yesterday. By law, her in-person vote replaces her earlier absentee ballot, after election inspectors double-check them against the poll books.

“It’s great that the law accommodates this exact situation,” she said, noting that village Clerk Kareen Tyler confirmed that New York state allows for voters to cast updated ballots.

Halasz brought her sons with her even though, at 11 and 15, they were too young to vote. “All elections are important to me,” she said, noting that much had changed since her first vote, between the pandemic, the issues facing the town and the candidates themselves, including the addition of Sussey into the mix.

“I didn’t feel like the current leaders addressed diversity,” she said. She also cited police reform and the town hiring Lexipol as concerning issues.

“I think people are really jazzed up about voting,” said Thoma as she directed another voter to the exit door.

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Managing Editor Peter Crowley contributed to this report.

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