You want to know how important your vote is? Consider this. Nearly 6,800 people voted on November 8 to determine who would be the next supervisor for the Town of East Hampton. If 8 people who voted for Bill Wilkinson had instead voted for Zach Cohen, the future of East Hampton Airport would be much different than its past—and possibly even torn up and shut down.
Here’s how high the stakes were. Leading up to this election, one group of people argued that the thriving airport, owned by the Town but run by the Federal Aviation Administration, should continue along as is. And then there was another group of people arguing that the noise of the planes and helicopters coming and going had become intolerable, and what they wanted was it shut down.
Two members of the five-man town board were on one side, two members were on the other side, and the fifth man, with a decision about the airport looming, would be the winner of the Town Supervisor race. Bill Wilkinson, the incumbent, favored the airport. Zach Cohen, the challenger, has said he’d vote to send the F.A.A. packing.
The campaign was bitter. Campaign signs were defaced. The Town Budget Director, Len Bernard, who is not even running, was accused of using town property to fight for his boss Bill Wilkinson. He was sending messages out on a town-owned computer. As election day approached, the town board braced itself for a show-down, because decisions about the F.A.A. needed to be made imminently. There would be a decisive meeting on Thursday night, December 1, four weeks after the election. One way or another the vote would be 3-2. If Wilkinson won, they’d stay the course. If Cohen won, they’d head down this path to kick out the F.A.A. and bring the East Hampton Airport completely under the town’s direct control. And from there, it would only be a short way to shutting out the helicopters and, eventually, shutting down the airport entirely.
This airport had been built in a forest back in the 1930s. But housing developments had grown up around it. The noise was intolerable. Or so those living there said.
Three separate action groups were formed to carry the banner for the residents now living in the shadow of the airport. One, Quiet Skies, was created as an offshoot of Dark Skies, the highly effective organization dedicated to putting an end to glare in all outdoor public and private lighting clusters.
Election day came. It was expected that by 10 p.m., two hours after the polls closed, a winner in the Wilkinson-Cohen contest would be announced. One would concede and thank everybody for their help. The other would make a victory speech and announce that now the town could move forward into the future with renewed (or new) confidence.
That’s not what happened. The initial tally, without the write-in votes and without any challenges which would come later, showed Wilkinson leading Cohen by just 177 votes. It was too close to call.
As a matter of fact, as the days went by and stretched into weeks, it got even closer than too close to call. The reason? The original votes had to go through a recount. And then there were 840 absentee votes, in unopened envelopes, still to be counted—which, if history were any guide, would be more for Cohen, the Democrat than for Wilkinson the Republican. Advantage Cohen.
Then there were about 70 challenges to be dealt with. There were reasons why certain people might have voted when they shouldn’t have and during the recount, the monitors pointed them out. For example, if they were already registered voters in New York City they’d be ineligible to vote from their second homes in East Hampton. Most of the challenges came from the Wilkinson camp. Truth is, there are more registered Democrats who have summer homes out here than Republican. Advantage Wilkinson.
The recount, the absentee count and the challenged vote determination took place day after day in a large warehouse space filled with banquet tables and lit with florescent lights on Yaphank Road at Exit 67 on the Long Island Expressway. Monitors from the Republican Town Committee were there as were monitors from the Democratic Town Committee. Also present were employees and numerous observers. Early on, there were other recounts going on for other towns at other tables. But at those tables the people began to drift away one after another as the balloting was completed and decisions reached.
As for East Hampton, at the end, there were just two of the dozen or so tables in use. Jeanne Frankl, the Chairperson of the Town Democratic Party was there at one table with the attorney Sam Kramer facing the Board of Elections people. Adjacent to them were attorneys hired by the Democrats facing more Board of elections people. All were paying close attention as a particular envelope would be opened up, the ballot inside unfolded and then looked at by everyone one at a time for discussion. Occasionally, one side or the other would state an objection, and a more comprehensive discussion would ensue.
More days went by. Slowly but surely, Wilkinson’s lead melted away. On Thursday it was down to 151 votes. On Friday it was a 54-vote margin. And then, finally, on Monday, November 17, matters had been resolved on everything except 33 envelopes – and Wilkinson’s lead had dropped to just 17.
What would happen with these 33? One after another was presented, discussed and decided upon. One for Cohen, one for Wilkinson. The lead dropped to 16, then went back up to 17.
At this point, a strange calmness settled over everybody. All of these people, on both sides of the election, had been working so long they had come to trust the fairness of the process.
“I think you guys won,” someone said.
And then everyone realized it was over. Wilkinson was ahead by 15 votes, and there were just 14 envelopes yet to be evaluated. Everyone knew what this meant. Cellphones came out. Calls were made.
“Do we need to open these envelopes?” someone asked.
“No we don’t,” came the reply. “But we will anyway.”
It was over.
And so, the choppers will continue to come into East Hampton Airport as before, but now there surely will be a very vigorous effort to solve the noise problem. Wilkinson had been so widely favored. He had done so much to repair the finances for the town. He had lowered taxes. And now this—hardly a show of confidence. The closeness of it all was truly a shock.
The last 14 votes? Split evenly. The final tally was incumbent Bill Wilkinson 3,403 and challenger Josh Cohen, 3,388.
If you lived in East Hampton, boy did your vote count on November 8.