How Voter Fraud Allegations Tore a Tiny Village Apart

Voter fraud is basically a myth in American politics, but one small New York village has been rocked by allegations pitting newly arrived Hasidic Jews against longtime residents.

by Hella Winston
Nov 8 2016, 6:27pm

Chestnut Ridge, the controversial development at the heart of voter fraud allegations in the upstate New York village of Bloomingburg. Photo by the author

"People keep saying there is virtually no voter fraud in America," a petite, dark-haired woman tells me over a soda at the Quickway Diner in Bloomingburg, New York. "Really?" she shrugs. "I guess they haven't been up here."

Like many who live in and around this tiny (population just over 400) rural village nestled in the Shawangunk Mountains north of New York City, the woman is reluctant to use her name when talking local politics. After all, those who speak out critically about what's going on here have a history of getting dragged into court. But the woman is far from alone in her anger and exasperation over an ugly battle pitting longtime residents against a developer some locals say has spent years plotting to refashion the place as a sort of private city.

The saga playing out in Bloomingburg shows how allegations of voter fraud—which are so often baseless and clearly designed to target minorities—can wreak havoc on a community. And when the playing field is a local one and the voting pool is tiny, even a few questionable votes are enough to shatter confidence in the system.

The ongoing furor over voting in Bloomingburg first erupted during the lead-up to a village election almost three years ago, when people some residents claimed had never been seen around town—let alone lived in it—began registering to vote. Established residents alleged that many of the places these new arrivals said they called home were in fact empty. Registration challenges were submitted to the Sullivan County Board of Elections, which investigated and deemed the challenges valid.

Almost all the new residents were Hasidim, members of a branch of Orthodox Judaism with adherents who follow a strict interpretation of Jewish law, speak Yiddish, and eschew engagement with the secular world. Since the late 1970s, facing an affordable housing crunch, Hasidim have been expanding from their Brooklyn base to settle villages in the counties north of New York City. They typically vote in a bloc, which has enabled them to wield outsized political influence in the state.

According to court testimony of a Sullivan County election commissioner, some new Hasidic voters in Bloomingburg didn't seem to know what street they lived on or what county they were in. And all of the newly registered voters claimed to inhabit buildings owned by a developer, Shalom Lamm, who had acquired property in the town of Mamakating, where Bloomingburg is located.

Back in 2006, according to a confidential retention agreement since revealed in court, the developer used a local as a frontman to persuade officials to annex his property into Bloomingburg. Lamm's agent publicly claimed the land would become a low-density, luxury weekend golf-course community. But in a confidential 2013 business proposal unsealed by a federal judge, Lamm discussed "secret" plans to remake it as a "complete Hassidic/Torah community with all of its support facilities." The developer also projected that, "With the initial occupancy of these homes, the owners... will effectively control the local government, its zoning and ordinances."

He estimated that the project would eventually come to comprise 5,000 to 7,000 units.

At the time, Lamm's spokesperson Michael Fragin said allegations of impropriety reeked of anti-Semitism and that the business proposal was little more than a sales pitch designed to appeal to Hasidic buyers. But documents that only came to light this year through discovery in a recently settled religious discrimination complaint make it clear electing village officials was a key part of the developer's strategy. (Lamm won a $2.9 million settlement in that suit, paid by the insurers of Mamakating and Bloomingburg.) In one email to his partner revealed in the same discovery process, Lamm wrote of having "GUARANTEED to [the then Bloomingburg mayor] that he will win the [next] election if he agrees to run, and agrees in advance to work for the annexations and zoning changes."

After that 2014 mayoral election, a citizen-funded complaint sought to have the votes of 148 challenged registrants sequestered until they could prove their residency. Lamm, who along with several family members claimed residency in Bloomingburg, alleged anti-Semitism and went to court. But after he and other challenged voters were subpoenaed to give proof of their residency, not one showed up. Lamm withdrew from the case in what he claimed were the "long-term interests" of Bloomingburg—a village, he said, "where I continue to reside and where I hope to continue to be a positive force for change."

A stunned judge called the registration effort "an attempt to stuff the ballot box," reproaching the developer's attorney, "If there's anything worse than anti-Semitism, it is the false accusation of anti-Semitism."

The challenged votes were left uncounted and Lamm's preferred mayoral candidate lost.

But that wasn't the end of Bloomingburg's electoral struggles. Tensions flared up again later that year in the wake of a referendum to dissolve the village and place it under the direct jurisdiction of Mamakating—which could have major implications for future development. In that election, a coalition of town residents challenged 194 voter registrations, including those of some voters who had been challenged in the previous one. After a protracted legal battle, disputed ballots were counted, and, as a result, the village remained its own municipality.

The following year, after another round of accusations and counter-charges, pro-Lamm Board of Trustees candidate Aron Rabiner beat an incumbent by just nine votes when contested registrants once deemed ineligible by elections officials had their votes counted anyway.

Check out this VICE News Tonight look at the lead-up to Election Day in the critical battleground state of North Carolina.

In the midst of the electoral and legal chaos, 27 Hasidic Bloomingburg residents filed a federal lawsuit charging the Board of Elections with engaging "in an unyielding discriminatory campaign to deprive Hasidic Jewish residents of Bloomingburg... of the fundamental right to vote." Mamakating and Bloomingburg officials, in turn, called upon New York State's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, to investigate what they believed to be election fraud. So far, Schneiderman does not appear to have responded publicly, though the FBI has maintained a presence in the area since agents carried out a raid of several of Lamm's properties in 2014.

In February of this year, the Sullivan County Legislature settled the discrimination lawsuit by consent decree "in order to avoid the substantial expense and inconvenience" of further litigation. While the decree said the Board of Elections had used an impermissible procedure for handling the challenged votes, it did not alter any of the board's prior voter eligibility determinations—and it did not address the underlying question of whether the voters actually lived in the village they said they did.

The decree also mandated an election monitor to oversee registration challenges in Bloomingburg for the next five years, depriving the board of the power to act independently. It further entitled a voter whose challenge is upheld to argue that the board acted in an "arbitrary or discriminatory" manner.

When contacted for this story, Fragin—the Lamm spokesman—said of his client's written guarantee about the 2014 mayoral election, "At worst, it was in-artful language." Fragin added via email, "Mr. Lamm vehemently denies that he participated in any voter fraud in connection with any election in Bloomingburg. No charges have been filed against anyone in this regard, and we believe that any such charges would be unfounded."

Meanwhile, some locals—including those who don't live in Bloomingburg proper—fear the consent decree's provisions could effectively stave off future challenges and encourage electoral mayhem in the area.

"The voter fraud in Bloomingburg was blatant, hostile, and proven," argued area resident John Kahrs. "Amazingly, it went un-prosecuted because of the political influence of special interests."

While cautioning that he had not reviewed the document, University of California at Irvine election law expert Rick Hasen said he was unaware of another consent decree like the one in Bloomingburg. "On the one hand, [there is] a town that is concerned that its character is going to fundamentally change by... bringing in people who can vote and essentially change the government," Hasen said. "And on the other hand, you have the right that people can generally live where they want and participate in the political process the way anyone else does."

The locals I canvassed claimed not to disagree with any of that. And they also expressed what seemed like a genuine desire to have good relations with the Hasidim who have taken up residence there. But many also believe they have been the victims of voter fraud, and remain concerned about what this saga portends not only for Bloomingburg, but for other small villages like theirs around the country.

Follow Hella Winston on Twitter.