Poll law changes, but is it better?

CRARYVILLE—The Taconic Hills Board of Education has changed the way district residents register to vote in annual budget votes and other school district elections, but what, exactly, that means is not yet clear.

At the June 19 Board of Education meeting the board adopted, by a six-to-one vote (two members absent), a resolution stating that the district will switch to a system of poll registration and “will no longer provide for personal registration of voters” for school district votes.

Initial indications that something was up with voter registration in this school district came prior to the May 21 budget vote this year, when residents who were registered to vote were denied absentee ballots for the election because district officials deemed they had not produced adequate proof of residency.

A May 23 news story in The Columbia Paper, “District raises bar to vote,” details residents’ efforts to cast their votes in the usual way, but who were instead handed “an affidavit ballot” which they filled out but had no way of knowing if it was even counted. Just because residents were duly registered to vote with the Columbia County Board of Elections was not sufficient evidence of being a qualified voter in the school district, according to district officials.

Now the district has adopted a resolution to change to a system of poll registration, but since the adoption of that resolution, district residents have attended Board of Education meetings trying to get some answers about what the change means and how it will be implemented, without success.

At the August 14 board meeting, Erlyn Madonia was among several people who quizzed the board about the voter registration resolution. She asked how poll registration differs from the way registration was done before and “how will it ‘facilitate increased participation by school district residents in the voting process’?” as the resolution says it will.

Alan Friedman, who identified himself as a property owner in New York City and “up here,” questioned why there had not been any public discussion about the resolution before it was passed. He voiced concerns about whether, if he were a renter or an immigrant with children in the district, would he be able to vote?

School Board President Bonnie Torchia said the board “is going to come up with a policy to go along with our resolution” and plans to conduct a public forum workshop to collect public input at some future time.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Neil Howard said he had been trying to arrange a public workshop at a time when State School Boards Association Deputy Executive Director, General Counsel and Director of Legal and Policy Services Jay Worona along with the school district’s attorneys, Girvin and Ferlazzo, PC could attend. So far, he said, he has been unable to find a date agreeable to all. As of press time August 28, a date still had not been set.

“The New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) is the statewide voice for the interests of public boards of education. NYSSBA serves more than 675 local school boards and boards of cooperative educational services (BOCES), which represent more than 5,200 members—nearly half the elected officials in the state,” according to the NYSSBA website https://www.nyssba.org.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Mr. Worona told The Columbia Paper that as he understands it, “Taconic Hills is trying to manage its own issues” and the “perception is that there has been a problem.” He said that “historically there have been problems with individuals voting who might not be eligible to vote.” He said he assumed the district had been advised by its attorney to come up with a voter registration system that would prevent the problem going forward.

In the past a voter could come to the polls and because his or her name is “on a list” the district would “sign-off” on the person being an eligible voter. But now voters must demonstrate that they are qualified and eligible to vote.

Mr. Worona said he would not make a value judgment on which system of voter registration (personal vs. poll registration) was more restrictive but he did acknowledge that someone who has not had to show proof in the past may find the request for proof “offensive.” No statistics exist on which form of registration is more prevalent in school districts across the state, he said.

Noting the importance of school boards as the “fiscal stewards” of school districts, he said “every single school board is responsible” for seeing that the district electorate is made up the people who have the legal right to vote there. School districts “are directly controlled by the people who have the right to make those decisions,” he said.

Evidence of where people file their taxes with the IRS or State and Star Exemption documentation are among the acceptable forms of proof of primary residence, said Mr. Worona, adding just owning property there does not entitle someone to vote in a school district.

The school district website (https://www.taconichills.k12.ny.us) attempts to “clarify” the difference between poll and personal registration of voters in a section called, Voter Questions. Find that section by clicking on the home page Our District tab and selecting Finance, Budget and Voting in the drop-down menu.

According to the website, “These sections provide the same criteria to be ‘qualified’ to vote in school district elections; the only difference is that with personal registration, there is the additional requirement to be ‘eligible’ to vote, which is registration. To be clear, both require the same ‘criteria’ to be ‘qualified’ to vote; personal registration then adds the additional requirement of registration to be ‘eligible’ to vote.”

The last paragraph of this explanation, which was written by the school district’s attorneys, says, “We assume the County also requires proof of residency, but we found some cases where the individual was allowed to register with the County, but then informed us that their primary residence was not in county.”

Based on her reading of State Education Law vs. State Election Law, Columbia County Democratic Election Commissioner Virginia Martin said by phone this week, that the school district has “a stricter definition of residency.”

She said a voter filling out a New York State voter registration form must provide identification such as a driver’s license or a Social Security number and swear to the truth of the information provided including, citizenship, birth date and address. “A voter swears to its truth and acknowledges that the penalties for lying are that s/he can be ‘convicted and fined up to $5,000 and/or jailed for up to four years.’ It’s not something a voter does lightly or thoughtlessly,” she said by follow-up email.

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.” This is not the case in Education Law.

Columbia County Democratic Committee Chairman Keith Kanaga, who had received complaints from Democrats about the problems they ran into with voting at Taconic Hills this year, said the committee has retained the law firm of Bond, Schoeneck & King, which specializes in Education Law, in order to ask them questions about the differences in voter registration systems. He said he did not find the documents on the district’s website comprehensible. He said the move to secure information from attorneys who specialize in Education Law, was to try “to be helpful” to community residents, not because it is considered a partisan issue.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com

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