CRARYVILLE—PEOPLE: “What are you going to do?”
BOARD: “We don’t know, what do you think we should do?”
That was the gist of the exchange between members of the public who showed up at the September 18 Taconic Hills Board of Education meeting and board members.
About 50 people crowded the public seating area in the board’s meeting room for a workshop on voter registration to find out how the board’s newly-adopted “poll registration” system was going to work.
Kristine A. Lanchantin, district counsel from Girvin & Ferlazzo, PC and Kimberly A. Fanniff, senior staff counsel from the legal department at the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), were on hand to try to clear up questions.
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 with the Columbia County Board of Elections were denied absentee ballots because school district officials deemed they had not produced adequate proof of residency.
Ms. Lanchantin explained that the matter is governed by Education Law, not Election Law. “Election Law does not apply here,” she said.
Despite its name, the district’s new poll registration system does not require registration at all, she said.
A person is entitled to vote in a school district vote if he/she is: a citizen of the United States; at least 18 years of age; a resident within the district for a period of 30 days preceding the election.
Voters no longer have to be registered to vote in school district elections, but when they come to vote, they will have to provide proof of residency. And it’s not just about home ownership.
“It’s where you live and intend to stay… where you lay your head the majority of the time… you can only have one residence and you can only vote in the school district of which you are a resident,” said the attorney. She said the criteria is largely the same for determining whether a student can attend school in a district.
One woman declared she had been a district resident since 1980 but worked in New York City and did not spend the majority of her time here. She demanded to know where she could find the legal citation to verify the attorney’s claims.
Ms. Lanchantin told her to find it on the NYS Education Law website, she said “the Education Commissioner has exclusive jurisdiction regarding school district elections.”
Board member David Baylen asked Ms. Lanchantin, “Every year at every vote, a voter needs to bring proof of residency documentation every time?”
“Yes,” the attorney said.
The discussion turned to what is an acceptable form of identification for proof of residency?
Examples on a list compiled by the school district included:
*Driver’s license with physical address
*Learner’s permit with physical address
*“Real ID” with physical address
*Non-driver ID with physical address
*Enhanced driver’s license with physical address
*Passport with physical address
*NYS tax return with physical address
*Federal tax return with physical address
*Star exemption, basic or enhanced.
Board member Craig Bender noted that most people who reside in nursing homes could not produce anything on that list.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Neil Howard, Jr., said people who are disabled get ballots sent to them automatically. He said others can supply a letter from the nursing home or a landlord saying the person is a resident of a certain address.
It was noted that many Philmont residents receive their mail via post office box and do not have documents with their physical address on it. Others noted that passports do not have the bearer’s physical address on them.
District resident Abigail Pessen wanted to know the motivation for the change. Board member Joseph Costa said he knew of a household that received an absentee ballot for a voter who had been dead for 10 years. He said a member of that household told him he was going to use the ballot to vote for him (Mr. Costa). But Mr. Costa took the ballot from him and turned it over to the district. Earlier in the meeting mention was made of one or more emails received by the district from voters asking for absentee ballots, who later admitted they did not live in the district the majority of the time.
“We don’t want to suppress anyone’s vote, we just want to make sure you are eligible to vote. We have found that the County Board of Elections’ records are not accurate,” said Board President Bonnie Torchia.
A man in the audience wanted to know how the district is going to enforce the new system and be better able to defend against voter fraud than the state. “Where is the district going to get the resources?”
As various forms of voter identification were picked apart as inadequate, Ms. Torchia asked the audience “to give us a solution. What is a better form of proof?”
Over grumbles from the angry crowd, board member Ronald Morales explained that “a fraud has been perpetrated” on the district. “This happened, we don’t want this to happen again. We’re trying to rectify a situation that was wrong. This has nothing to do with political party. They were told not to vote and they voted anyway.” The new system “may not work,” he acknowledged.
When someone in the crowd demanded to know how many instances of voter fraud had occurred, Dr. Howard said, “I don’t know how many misled us. I do not have a number.”
He said the physical emails and other evidence–such as inconsistencies and signatures entered into poll books–had been turned over to the district attorney.
Columbia County Democratic Election Commissioner Virginia Martin said from the audience that these allegations should have been reported to the Board of Elections. “You should let us know about specific instances with our voter list.”
President Torchia said when she went to vote in the general election no one asked her for proof of residency.
“Does that mean you should be prevented from voting? The Board of Elections deserves to know about it,” Ms. Martin said.
As the board and the public continued to argue over appropriate proof of residency and what number of pieces of proof were “too onerous,” board member Linda Lee noted that one of the criteria for voting was to be a citizen of the U.S. She questioned whether that meant the district also needed to set up an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) agent at polls.
A man from the audience said that all Philmont and most Mellenville residents who receive mail in a post office box will not be able to meet this new proof of residency requirement. “If you think 10% voter turnout is bad, it’s going to be a lot less.”
Ms. Torchia said no discussion among board members or a decision on what to require as proof of residency would take place at the board meeting following the workshop that evening.
She said that based on the public’s input the board would discuss the matter further and decide. She did not say when.
Some districts make it easy
WITH ALL THE HUBBUB over the change in voter registration at Taconic Hills, The Columbia Paper wondered whether other Columbia County school districts were facing the same issue.
None of the three school districts contacted—Chatham, Germantown or Hudson—reported any instances of voter fraud.
Hudson City School District Clerk Leslie Coons said her district uses Columbia County Board of Elections registration forms and requires the same ID for registration as the Board of Elections—a driver’s license or a Social Security card. She said there is one designated day for personal voter registration. “If a person went to the Board of Elections to register they are automatically registered for school board elections,” she said.
Those whose names cannot be found on poll lists when they come to vote are given affidavit ballots. Their votes are not counted until the district can verify they are legal voters. Nine out of 10 times, they have just not registered, Ms. Coons said. She said all poll workers in HCSD elections come from a list of trained personnel provided by the Board of Elections.
Chatham Central School District Clerk Debbie Pottenburgh said the district relies on the County Board of Elections voter list. She said those not on the list, who may be newcomers, are asked to fill out a registration form and provide a driver’s license for identification, although she said the ID “is not mandatory.”
Germantown Central School District Clerk Linda Anderson said her district uses the personal voter registration system. She said residents can register to vote in the school district election anytime school is open. She said voters usually show a driver’s license as identification and they have to show they have been a school district resident for 30 days prior to the election. Most voters have previously registered with the county, said Ms. Anderson, adding, “People are very honest.” —Diane Valden