Kingston school election changes – and additional costs – seem certain

Kingston City School District officials last month lamented a decision by the Ulster County Board of Elections to no longer allow school districts to use their voting machines for their annual budget votes and school board elections.

This week, a co-commissioner of the Board of Elections explained why the decision was made, and why it’s highly unlikely it would be reversed.

Democratic Commissioner Ashley Dittus said while the decision to no longer lease voting machines to school districts was partly driven by New York State’s decision to hold its federal, state and local primaries on a single day in June — in 2019, it will be the 25th — there were other factors as well.

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“It’s been our experience with this partnership that it just was not working out for the Board [of Elections],” said Dittus, explaining that the process was labor- and time-intensive, and that even though school districts were billed for use of the machines, the arrangement didn’t cover all costs. There was also an issue of training, which was moved from late summer to early spring to accommodate the mid-May school district voting cycle.   

“We have over 700 part time employees that serve as inspectors,” said Dittus. “That’s something that takes both me and my fellow Republican commissioner [Thomas Turco] to train inspectors, and it’s something that takes us out of our office for weeks at a time.”

Dittus said that across the county, school districts sometimes failed to hold up their end of the bargain in both district and other elections.

“We were looking for some kind of mutual agreement with the schools that they would help us out with our poll-site needs,” Dittus said. “That never came to fruition. We’ve actually had to change a lot of poll sites in the Town of New Paltz because they were having construction at their schools, so we weren’t allowed to use their schools anymore. That was a bit annoying.”

Election officials said the shortened span between school district polling — Tuesday, May 21 — and primaries — Tuesday, June 25 — will not give them enough time to reset and recheck the machines. New York State held primaries in June in both 2016 and 2018, but Dittus said security measures not in place in 2016 were in place in 2018, and the experience showed the Board of Elections that leasing machines to school districts was no longer viable.

“After that experience it really showed just how impossible that is,” Dittus said, adding that with early voting set to begin in the state in November, and with early voting for next year’s presidential primaries due in April 2020, the election landscape is already crowded enough for the Board of Elections without school budget votes. “It’s something we can not take on the burden of, along with a full-scale general election in nine different sections of the county. With the change in the schedule for our elections to June, the school elections in May, this is the true crux of it: It’s impossible for us to facilitate their elections while also being the Board of Elections that’s responsible for holding a primary a few weeks later.”

“We’re an office of 12 people,” said Dittus. “We just don’t have the manpower for it.”

Superintendent skeptical

But KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino doesn’t buy it. “I don’t get it,” he said. “OK, there’s a short turnaround with the primaries, we’ll figure it out. We’ve offered to do anything and everything we can to assist. We’ve offered to pick up the machines with our trucks, have our guys set them up, do all those kinds of things. But nothing seems to be changing anyone’s mind over there. It’s unfortunate.”

Padalino said the district is still weighing its options, but time is quickly running out. At the center of the discussion is the cost of optical scan voting systems, which uses a scanner to read marked paper ballots and tally the results. Each machine, said the superintendent, costs around $15,000. Currently, the district holds its annual budget vote in each of its seven elementary schools.

“We outlay probably $150,000-$200,000 to make sure we have the right number of machines in each of our polling locations,” Padalino said. “Or we reduce our polling locations and number of machines, which is an inconvenience to voters.”

In the latter scenario, the district would hold elections in Kingston High School and both M. Clifford Miller and J. Watson Bailey elementary schools. Padalino said he wasn’t happy about either option, but that there may be no other choice.

“At the end of the day, the people who are going to pay are the taxpayers,” he said. “And the people who are going to be inconvenienced are the voters. And their disappointment and anger can be taken out on us in at the budget vote, but it can’t be taken out against the county because they don’t have a [public] budget vote.”

Padalino said that despite ongoing discussions, it’s become clear that the Ulster County Board of Elections isn’t going to budge.

“It’s unfortunate, but it does seem that way,” he said. “They seem to be dug in pretty good on this decision. Their reasoning is their reasoning. Most other counties in the state aren’t using the same reasoning. Orange County is still allowing school districts to use voting machines, even though they have the short timeline on the primaries. It’s a little confusing, I guess.” 

Dittus said that school districts still wrestling with what they’ll do ahead of May’s budget vote are giving the impression that they’re being blindsided.

“That’s disingenuous, I will have to say. We did let them know in the fall, which has given them lots of months to prepare,” she said, adding that the Board of Elections provided them with lists of vendors, including the ones they use and others. “I think that they’ve been dragging their feet hoping we’d change our minds, and so they’re not preparing for what is coming. It’s very foolhardy for them to think that this is going to reverse all of a sudden.”

Dittus posited that one solution would be to coordinate school district elections and municipal elections like library and fire district votes with other polling efforts by the Board of Elections. In addition to the ease of shared services, Dittus said that school districts would likely see a significant increase in voter turnout.

‘I would like to see them all shifted to November when everybody is conditioned to go vote,” she said. “Our ballots have the capacity to have all of these budgets and referendums on our ballots. I think it would be better for voters to have it all done at once. You see it in their numbers. They have horrible voter turnout. It’s worse than even our lowest primary elections, just a few years ago. In Ulster, people are voting more, and that’s a great thing. But in their [school district] elections you just don’t see that trend.”

Clock is ticking

Padalino said that to allow for a 60-day public notification for any changes in polling locations, the district will likely have to determine which direction it plans to go early this month.

“We’re disappointed, obviously,” he said. “We’ve got the city school district purchasing machines that are already purchased by the county. Same taxpayers. So the taxpayers are going to double-spend, and we’re talking about $15,000 per machine. Not to act like it’s less for other districts, it’s all proportional. But we have significantly more voters and more polling places than everyone else. We’re going to have to be very clear in our communications that this was put upon us to either spend this money. We could hire three teachers for what we’re going to have to pay for machines.”

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