EDITORIAL: Getting to know you

THINK OF ALL THE PEOPLE you meet now by cell phone. They offer you money, prizes, good jobs or a conversation with an incarcerated relative who needs a couple hundred bucks to make bail.

Now imagine they could see as well as hear you–without you knowing it. Artificial intelligence (AI) can instantaneously decide whether you’re who you say you are by scanning your face and matching you with your bank account and medical records, not to mention your favorite flavor of ice cream or unpaid traffic ticket.

In China police already use AI to subjugate the Uighur minority. The U.S. government is working on this technology too. Currently there are no laws restricting it’s use.

At the local level, officials still rely on old-fashioned and generally accepted methods of determining who’s who. We show a driver’s license and vehicle registration if we’re pulled over by a police officer. Younger people expect to hand over photo ID to purchase alcohol. When we vote, we’re required to sign the register. These interactions are routine, except when they’re not, as was the case at the Taconic Hills Central School District (THCSD) ahead of last week’s school district elections.

Associate Editor Diane Valden reported on one case in particular in which a couple, Brad and Mary Stein, who live in Ancram and have voted regularly in THCSD elections in previous years, were denied absentee ballots when they requested them. The couple presented the yellow voter verification cards sent out by the county Board of Elections, which have their names and address. They’re good enough for elections of federal, state and local officials, but they weren’t good enough for THCSD.

Instead, a lawyer for the district suggested they could submit redacted income tax forms with their names and addresses. Perhaps the district officials wanted this to be a demonstration that Taconic Hills adheres to a higher standard than the President of The United States, who says he doesn’t have to share his tax records with the United States Congress.

If it was a teachable moment, have students been asked to compare and contrast the situations as lessons in democracy? If so, let’s hope they were instructed to pay close attention to Mary Stein, who did not back down. Instead she asserted her right to cast an absentee ballot and was given instead what’s called an affidavit ballot, leaving it up to school election officials to determine whether to count her vote when the results were tabulated after the polls closed. The officials ruled on the Stein ballots and others in secret. Was that democracy in action?

Slavery in this country was abolished as the Civil War ended in 1865. But black Americans did not have the legal right to vote until the 15th Amendment took effect in 1870 and it was another 95 years before the barriers that barred black citizens from voting were outlawed under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Barriers still exist today, though not all of them are based on race. Erasing the barriers remains a battle worth fighting for.

It’s not clear why THCSD has suddenly made it more difficult for the Steins and others to vote. And what happened to the Steins was nothing like the systematic racial hatred of the Jim Crow era. The local case may have resulted from poor communication with the public or a misinterpretation of the law by THCSD. But changes that make it harder for qualified people to vote undermine our democracy.

We want elections to be fair. We want each individual to have one vote in each contest in her election district. Fraudulent voting is very rare, and we need more–not fewer–qualified people to vote, because more voters make outcomes more representative of the whole community.

We need reasonable standards to determine the qualifications of voters and we must have consistent and fair application of election law when it comes to voter qualifications. Common sense would help too.

But the most important lesson from this year’s election in THCSD is how confusing it is for the state to have two sets of laws, one governing general municipal elections and the other, called Education Law, affecting only school districts. It’s time to settle on one set of election laws for all public entities, starting with voter qualifications.

If we don’t insist our elected state representatives take on the task of improving voting law, there is an alternative. Let technology resolve it. Let facial recognition decide who gets to vote and who gets “elected.” No problems, then. No democracy either.

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