District raises bar to vote

CRARYVILLE—Trying to cast a vote in the Taconic Hills School District election this week proved to be an unexpected challenge for some registered voters who were denied absentee ballots.

State Education Law and State Election Law seem to have clashed, creating a scenario in which voters legally registered to vote in national, state, county and local elections are suddenly not eligible voters in their own school district, at least as far as Taconic Hills (TH) is concerned.

Brad and Mary Stein of Ancram are among them.

They told The Columbia Paper by phone this week that they went to the Taconic Hills campus to pick up absentee ballots for the election. They usually vote at the school, but this year Mrs. Stein had a medical appointment that would take her and her husband out of town.

The Steins also have a downstate home, but live in Ancram for the majority of the year and vote annually in elections there.

Mr. Stein said he went to the school to get an absentee ballot but was turned away and told he had to bring proof that Ancram was his primary residence. He returned the next day with his wife and the yellow card mailed to him by the Columbia County Board of Elections, which confirms that he lives at the address indicated and is a qualified voter.

Virginia Martin, Columbia County Democratic Election Commissioner, said by phone this week that the Board of Elections asks the post office not to forward the cards to another address so records can be updated.

Mr. Stein was told by TH District Clerk Melissa Layman, who was accompanied by Alex Dahle, an attorney, that the card was not adequate proof. Mrs. Stein said they were told they needed to submit income tax forms as evidence of permanent residence. Mrs. Stein said she asked to see the law stating the requirement and was handed a piece of paper with a story on it about a lawsuit in which a man from out-of-state voted in Columbia County.

When Mrs. Stein insisted she be allowed to exercise her right to vote, the clerk left and came back with an affidavit ballot, which Mrs. Stein said she filled out and submitted, though she had no idea if it would be counted nor how she would know.

Mrs. Stein subsequently brought the matter to the attention of Town Supervisor Art Bassin (D-Ancram) and Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th), whose office confirmed the receipt of “a number of complaints.”

Asked about the situation this week, TH District Superintendent Neil L. Howard, Jr., said that New York State Education Law requires proof of residency. “Do we keep perpetrating a fraud? If you know a law is being broken do you continue to let it go on?

You are obligated to question when something seems amiss or askew,” said the superintendent, noting that he had no idea “who we are talking about.”

Asked what would be considered adequate proof, he said a STAR exemption document or redacted federal income taxes. For further information he referred The Columbia Paper to the district website, which offers information about the circumstances under which a voter can get an absentee ballot, but not what proof of residency has to be supplied.

It also says that the official voter registry “shall include the names of all persons who have presented themselves personally for registration in accordance with Section 2014 of the Education Law of the State of New York and pursuant to the provisions of the General Election Law of the State of New York.”

Mrs. Stein said her name appears on the official voter registry.

The public notice which the school district ran in local newspapers announcing the upcoming school district vote says, “… if a voter is registered and eligible to vote under Article 5 of the Election Law, he or she is also eligible to vote at this election.”

Board of Elections Commissioner Martin, who said she received a dozen complaints from Taconic Hills voters, pointed out in an email, “Article 5 of the Election Law, ‘Registration and Enrollment of Voters,’ is the basis on which the BOE produces its voter roll.

Education Law refers to Election Law requirements and though the school district could say additional voters are eligible, I don’t think it can subtract them,” Ms. Martin said.

With regard to Dual Residency case law, a 2018 State Election Law Update, states that “New York courts have held that, rather than compel persons… to establish to the satisfaction of a registrar of voters or a court that one home or the other is their principal, permanent residence, they can choose between them… [a]n individual having two residences may choose one to which she has legitimate, significant and continuing attachments as her residence for purposes of the Election Law.”

Yet Dr. Howard wrote in a subsequent email shared with The Columbia Paper by Supervisor Bassin, “Voter registration with [the] county is not absolute proof of residency in [the] Taconic Hills CSD. We are trying very hard to follow the law and existing state education commissioner’s decisions”.

An official at the State Education Department (SED) answered the question “What is adequate proof of residency?” by citing from a book called “School Law,” published jointly by the NYS School Boards Association and the NYS Bar Association, not an SED publication:

In districts without personal registration, the Education Law authorizes (but does not require) district election officials to require voters at any school district meeting or election to provide one form of proof of residency, determined by the school district, such as a driver’s license, non-driver identification card, utility bill or voter registration card. In addition, district election officials also may require such persons offering to vote to provide their signature, printed name, and address…

In addition, in districts with personal registration, the commissioner of education has recognized the right of school officials to request proof of residency from a voter prior to the election, as a condition of maintaining the voter’s name on the voter registration list… For example, a district may require a voter to supply a ‘redacted’ copy of the voter’s income tax return. This means that the voter can blacken out the tax information but must allow school officials to see what address the voter has declared as his or her residence for tax purposes.”

Columbia County Democratic Committee Chairman Keith Kanaga, who was among those drawn into the fray by complaints from Democrats, said the committee has hired an attorney from Bond, Schoeneck & King PLLC, a New York City firm which specializes in educational law.

He said by phone Wednesday that Democrats want to understand a number of issues connected with the school district election, such as the definitions of residency and permanent residency and what is the test for it.

Voters should know what the tests are so they can tell if they meet the requirements, which should be the same across all school districts,” said Mr. Kanaga, noting, “People should be playing by the same set of rules.”

As to the question of whether the affidavit ballots were counted or discounted in the TH vote, Mr. Kanaga said Craig Bender, a successful school board candidate, and Diane Boice Yorck, the county Democratic deputy election commissioner were on hand at the close of school district voting Tuesday night.

When the polls closed the ballots were taken into another room where their disposition could not be seen, said Mr. Kanaga, noting, in the general election interested parties can watch the procedure.

Asked for her take on the issue, Assemblymember Barrett said by email, “Whenever local taxpayers are being denied the right to vote, I believe the situation deserves to be examined thoroughly. While I understand that the school district was acting on the advice of their lawyer and within the law, this election seems to have brought to light inconsistencies in the law which may need to be resolved. I hope my colleagues at the state legislature and our partners in local government will use this as an opportunity to address some discrepancies between our state’s election law and education law when it comes to voter eligibility.”

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