With concerns being raised by county officials across the state ahead of this Tuesday’s statewide school district votes, the New York State Council of School Superintendents outlined the mounting challenges of this year’s elections and a downstate Democrat offered a last-minute legislative solution.
While some are considering the arbitrary 5 p.m. cutoff as a culprit for voter suppression, Deputy Director for Advocacy and Communication Robert N. Lowry at the New York State Council of School Superintendents argues that the elections
“There are deadlines for when votes must be received or cast for every election,” Lowry told FingerLakes1.com.
In defense of Governor Cuomo’s decision to extend the school budget and board votes from May 17th to Tuesday, June 9th, the executive order does not designate 5 p.m. as the official deadline, rather this timeline is enforced through State Education Law, according to Lowry.
“The Governor’s Executive Order does not specifically set a 5 p.m. deadline. However, the State Education Law governing school elections every year provides that mail ballots must be received by 5 p.m. on the date of the vote. Therefore, because the Executive Order does not specify any different deadline, the universal interpretation is that the 5 p.m. deadline set in permanent law applies,” Lowry said.
Additionally, Executive Order 202.26 does not set an actual time or a specific date for a recount to occur after June 9th if the budget does not pass initially.
At the same time, however, Lowry argues that setting a deadline is still necessary.
“There does need to be some explicit deadline for when ballots must be received to be considered valid and to be counted,” he said.
Lowry shared that NYSCOSS has periodically alerted the Governor’s staff periodically in discussions, seeking guidance about the executive order.
In previous elections, counting ballots would commence after the polls closed, but this year it cannot occur until after 5 p.m. based on the conversations with the Governor’s Executive Chamber personnel.
“School districts have budget votes and board elections every year and there are well-established standard procedures for counting votes, including absentee ballots. There are some different wrinkles this year because the voting is being done entirely by mail and because of complications arising from the pandemic. For example, ordinarily districts would start counting after polls close; now they should not open any ballots until after 5 p.m. on June 9,” Lowry explained.
Aside from the counting itself, there has been a set of challenges that school districts have faced with the executive order, including mailing distribution and identifying eligible voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike general elections, school district residents are not required to be registered for this count – and tracking down every prospective voter is a tolling task for municipalities to tackle.
In any other election year, anyone 18 years of age or older would be eligible to vote and able to arrive the day of the election to vote in-person, but due to Governor Cuomo’s executive order, in-person voting has been banned and the school votes are operating on absentee ballots only.
“First, this has been an extraordinarily challenging process for school districts. Under existing state law, school district residents are not required to be registered voters for general elections to vote in school elections. In some districts, residents may show up on the day of the vote and present evidence that they are at least 18 years of age and have resided in the district for at least 30 days and they will be permitted to vote. So, first school districts needed to identify all their potential voters (anyone 18 or older and who has resided in the district for at least 30 days), then mail and absentee ballot to each such potential voter. This was a massive and unprecedented printing and mailing job,” Lowry stated.
Lowry confided that the New York State Council of School Superintendents already imagined the numerous possibilities that problems can emerge, and they had.
“We anticipated that problems could arise, and they have. For example, one printer serving over 40 school districts did not receive expected envelopes and was unable to complete printing and mailing ballots for all its school district customers until Wednesday. There are other school districts which have encountered problems,” he continued.
The company, NTS Data Services, a Buffalo area company was contracted to print and send ballots to residents in nearly 50 districts statewide, but the company did not possess enough envelopes to package them on-time.
NTS Data Services has declined multiple requests for comment.
While Lowry remains content about the current situation albeit even with late ballots being mailed, a downstate Democrat is directly advocating for a failsafe to ensure voter enfranchisement for these districts and the rest of the state.
State Senator Peter Harckham [D-40] sponsored and introduced Senate Bill S8475 this Tuesday, which “extends the date for school district and library elections until June 16, 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” as the bill reads.
The bill that currently sits in the Rules Committee, aims at offering an amendment to Governor Cuomo’s executive order, allowing the ballots for all Board of Education, budget, and library votes to be tallied until the following Tuesday, June 19th.
In the bill’s justification, it reads, “As school district and library elections shift from in-person voting to mail in ballots, many school districts have been faced with the burden of finding the proper stationery supplies to reach the public. Due to delays in the supply chain, some school districts have yet to receive the necessary supplies to send out their ballots in time for the June 9th deadline. Changing the deadline to June 16 will ensure that in all districts the public has the ability to be properly represented.”
“Well, we heard a lot of the same concerns you heard upstate, and we wanted to have a fallback measure, in case we needed it,” Sen. Harckham told FingerLakes1.com.
While Sen. Harckham introduced legislation this week, he is not alone in attempting to address this issue a short few days ahead of statewide elections.
In addition to keeping in touch with the Governor’s office, he has been collaborating with State Sen. Shelley B. Mayer [D-37] of Yonkers, who serves as the chair of the Education Committee.
“I’ve been working with Shelley Mayer, who’s the chair of the education committee, signed her letter was slightly different than my bill. Her letter would ballots needed to be postmarked by the night, but that gives more time. That was a good approach too. So, we’ve been in touch with the governor’s office about an executive order,” Sen. Harckham said.
He also shared that he’s waiting until this Sunday during his press briefing where Governor Cuomo is anticipated to comment on whether an extension of some sort will occur.
Sen. Harckham hopes that his legislation gets adopted by Governor Cuomo to become an executive order, rather than a passed law.
“I mean, our measure, it would obviously be done easier and more smoothly through executive order,” he said. “I think right now, executive order is the best approach like planning for the worst hope for the best.”
“And that’s the whole point is to make sure that those like the elections are fair, every ballot is counted. You know, the school district gets the largest share of people’s property taxes and they want a say in who runs the school district and what’s the budget? So, we want every vote to be counted, and that’s why we proposed a measure,” Sen. Harkham added.
Despite difficulties with delayed mailing services, Lowry still doubts that Tuesday’s elections shall result in eroding voter enfranchisement across the state.
Still amid mounting uncertainties ahead of this Tuesday, Lowry considers that voter turnout could be higher this year than in the past with the expansion of absentee ballots to all registered voters in New York State.
“We expect turnout could be higher this year, because rather than having to identify where to vote and then get there while polls are open, voters can just check boxes on a ballot and mail it back to their school district in a postage paid envelope. We are concerned about the complications that school districts have faced in developing budgets this year, given the prospect of cuts in state aid if the federal government does not provide additional help to states,” he continued.
However, in stark contrast, Sen. Harckham sees the significance of extending these crucial votes that impact several sectors, including school district budgets.
“It’s a very different and challenging time than we’ve ever had in our history. We’re asking school districts to conduct absentee elections, which are really not set up to do. Board of elections are but certainly not school districts. So, if worse comes to worse and we get them a little more time, so every vote is counted. You know, let’s do it,” Sen. Harckham concluded.