Jason Nastke, former Valatie mayor, holds GOP seat on election board
HUDSON–“I was excited to take this job on,” said the newly appointed Columbia County Election Commissioner Jason Nastke.
That enthusiasm will assist the Republican commissioner as the county Board of Elections, made up of Mr. Nastke and his Democratic counterpart, Virginia Martin, and their staffs, has just finished handling a prolonged set of legal challenges to last November’s local elections and now faces the task of switching from the familiar lever voting machines to a new electronic ballot count system.
“One of the challenges will be to improve efficiency of the office,” he said, shortly after attending a meeting with Ms. Martin and Nancy Shultz, a consultant recently hired by the Board of Elections. Ms. Shultz has the task of helping preserve “the faith of the public in the voting process and ballot handling, among other things,” said Mr. Nastke.
“I think she’ll be a big help to the office in dealing with new registrations, and how we handle deadlines,” he said. And that’s not a small matter as it turns out. Last November immediately following the general election for town offices, the county Republican Committee filed a series of challenges to absentee ballots cast by second home owners in several towns. The tactic was used by the GOP without success in the special election for Congress in the 20th District last March, and earlier this month a state court confirmed that legal precedents do allow second home owners the right to vote here. The court also faulted the GOP challenge on procedural grounds, saying that challenges to absentee ballots had to be raised with the Board of Elections when the ballots were issued before the election rather than after completed ballots were submitted.
That ruling raises the prospect of an even busier election season this November for the Board of Elections, because Mr. Nastke says that the two local election commissioners are required by state election law to investigate whether people are registered to vote in more than one place. “The board is charged with carrying out policies as set by state election law. We have a duty to the public to carry them out,” he said.
Asked his reaction to the new voting systems voters must use in future elections, he admits he mistrusts computers involved in the voting process, because “when you need them the most, they let you down.”
That’s a view shared by Ms. Martin, who, along with Donald Kline, Mr. Nastke’s predecessor as Republican commissioner, has been a vocal critic of the costs and problems associated with electronic voting systems.
“Commissioner Martin makes a very good point about preserving the lever system. I know it’s going to be expensive to implement,” he said adding that Ms. Martin estimates an added cost of $100,000 per year, including $78,000 per year just to print ballots, and $22,000 annually for software upgrades.
“That represents a 20% increase in the Board of Elections’ budget, from $500- to $600,000,” he said.
“You look around New York state, and you can see plenty of problems including bridges and other infrastructure that need immediate work. When you consider the projected cost of $1 million over 10 years, you wonder what is so wrong with the current system, which we could keep and save this money.”
But Mr.Nastke is resigned to the task at hand. “We implement state election law, and I’m not one to let personal bias interfere with my duties,” he said.
Mr. Nastke, 30, is a Columbia County native and no stranger to politics. He was elected in 1998 to the post of mayor of the Village of Valatie right out of high school. He served from 1999 through 2003. Since leaving office, he graduated from Siena College with a major in finance.
He said that after his election as mayor, he asked mentor, former Assembly Minority Leader John Faso, what it takes to be successful and said Mr. Faso responded: reading, writing, and communication. Mr. Nastke said he took the advice to heart, adding that it continues to have relevance for him in his new position. With that in mind, he expressed concern about the current melt-down of print journalism media and the implications it has for democracy. “In the future, if you don’t have a respected news media, who is going to watch out for the public trust, some blogger?” he asked.
After leaving public office Mr. Nastke worked in real estate as a freelance closer for commercial and residential transactions all over the state. In that capacity he spent four days a week on the road where he experienced the state in all its diversity. He traveled regularly to urban centers like New York City, Albany and Westchester County, and occasionally to Plattsburg, Lake Placid, Buffalo, Watertown, Syracuse, Elmira, Boonville and the Hamptons on Long Island.
He now works for himself, developing and rehabbing residential properties on a small scale, a job that gives him the flexibility he needs to serve in the part-time position as an elections commissioner. He says this gives him a chance to be creative.
He believes the detail oriented work required of a real estate closer, in which a mistake might cost a client large sums of money, has prepared him for the job at the Board of Elections. He had his first taste of the potential for conflict in his new post when he had to make a call earlier this month, as the last of the challenged contests in Taghkanic was being decided. On a contested ballot he toed the party line and ruled that the ballot in question should be thrown out because of what he interpreted to be “an identifying mark.” The court ruled against him, upholding Ms. Martin’s decision to have the ballot counted.
“I respect Virginia Martin in her position. Even if they rule against me, I would never take it personally. We have jobs to do representing our parties and interpreting election law,” said Mr. Nastke.
“At the end of the day we have to assure the public that the process is fair and that we are running a clean election. The job is to set the policies of the office and oversee the functioning of the office. Communication, outreach, press relations and voter enrollment, are all part of it.”
Asked about his plans for the future, specifically about elective office, Mr. Nastke said, “I have no interest in running for office again.”
He conceded that things could change, saying, “You don’t know when you’ll get touched. You have to consider whether you’ll be able to effectuate change, and whether the battles are ones you can win.” But for now, he’s content with his new position on Board of Elections, where he plans to remain “as long as I’m needed.”