IF SCHOOL BOARDS GOT GRADES on their performance like their students do, the Taconic Hills Central School District Board of Education might have earned a D-. And just like concerned parents, school district voters have to figure out what remedial steps are needed to improve the school board’s grade in a course called the Tools of Democracy.
Last June a majority of the school board voted to change the way the school district determines who is eligible to vote in school district elections. It no longer matters whether you have registered with the county Board of Elections or the school district and have voted within the last four years. Now you have to bring some sort of acceptable identification with you each time you vote, according to an attorney for the school district.
It doesn’t sound like such a big deal until you try to remember what kind of tax form or special driver’s license or, of all things, a “voter registration card,” which you’ll need in order to vote each year instead of just showing up at the school on Election Day. Instead of a one-time hurdle when you first register to vote, this one is recurring. It’s bound to increase the time it takes to clear the voter ID checkpoint (will Taconic Hills voters have to remove their shoes and empty their pockets before proceeding to the voting booth?). This will increase voter frustration and make voter turnout even smaller than it already is.
And they’re doing this why? Because a board member told a story about a weird guy who insisted he would cast the absentee ballot of a dead person. The ballot in question had been mailed to the dead person’s address, so it’s not clear how the new poll registration system would prevent this type of error. The board might want to consider this story a case study of delusional behavior and not a sign of a vote fraud conspiracy that requires major changes in voter registration procedures.
The Taconic Hills Board perceived a vague threat that ineligible voters had distorted the results of school board/school budget elections. That could be true. But when asked how many cases of fraud the district has had, district Superintendent Neil Howard, Jr., said he didn’t know.
That didn’t stop the district from adopting a policy to fix a problem the board can’t pin down in terms of its size or its economic impact on district taxpayers. What if it turns out that the legal costs associated with changing the registration system add up to more than the cost of the old registration system? And how will the board measure the success of the new system compared to the old one?
The board might also consider what kind of message this sends to the district’s students. Parents, educators and the rest of the public hope that schools will teach children the importance of thinking before they act, to consider alternatives and to weigh the costs, however they’re measured. We also want kids to learn the difference between facts and opinion. But the lesson from the board’s voter registration initiative is a familiar one to young ears: Do as we say, not as we do.
The practical problem of identifying people, including registered voters, and knowing where they live and what they’re doing will soon disappear. Artificial intelligence (AI) is on the verge of owning our identities and will make that data available to those who can pay the price.
This technology is already stripping us of our privacy, so rather than putting up barriers to voting, wouldn’t it make more sense for small democratic institutions like school districts to focus on making it easier—more user friendly—to vote. After all, voting is the way we can privately express and retain our freedom. That’s important for kids to learn and grownups to remember.
Like other local school districts, Taconic Hills should use the county Board of Elections to register its voters and simultaneously develop a school district voter education program that informs residents throughout the district of their rights and of the rules that govern them with respect to school elections. This is not a job for lawyers. This effort requires educators.
Taking a new approach to voter registration would undoubtedly produce some failures as well as successes. Maybe it won’t produce any better results. But with voter turnout already low, it makes no sense to assume that more barriers will improve it.