CAPITAL REGION — Voter participation in the Greater Amsterdam School District budget and school board election increased over 400 percent from last year to this year. In Schenectady, participation surged 300 percent.
As results from school elections started to trickle in Tuesday night, it quickly became clear that participation in the state’s first-ever, absentee-ballot only school election soared to new levels.
Districts like Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and Broadalbin-Perth trumpeted record-level voter participation as they reported community approval of the budget for the school year beginning July 1.
The total number of votes cast in 41 Capital Region districts more than doubled compared to last year – rising from just over 37,000 votes last year to more than 86,000 this year. Districts and education advocates took the high participation as a positive sign of community support for schools and education.
“With over 5,000 votes cast, our community has sent a very strong message of support for BH-BL,” Burnt Hills Superintendent Patrick McGrath said of the results. “We appreciate that and we will work hard in the 2020-2021 school year to continue to earn that trust.”
Some education advocates had expressed concern that a major increase in participation as a result of universal vote-by-mail could complicate the prospects of passage, but many districts maintained close to the same margin of victory as last year.
Of the 41 districts – votes were still being counted in Shenendehowa, Guilderland and Albany school districts Wednesday afternoon – only two districts saw a decrease in the number of votes. The Wheelerville and Sharon Springs school districts, both small districts, saw slight decreases in voter participation in this week’s election.
Amsterdam, which finished counting its nearly 3,000 votes Wednesday morning with an approved budget, experienced the largest increase in voting with well over four times the level of voting as last year. Schenectady experienced a three-fold increase during its election, which resulted in the victory of two new school board members over a pair of incumbents running for new terms.
Advocates also found optimism in the fact that most budgets across the state, with the exception of Johnstown locally, were approved even in the midst of a recession.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the positive results given the economic circumstances voters face,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officers, the district officials who largely manage the budget process. “Regardless of the manner in which budget votes are held, it demonstrates deep longstanding support for public education.”
It remains to be seen if this year’s participation levels will go down as a blip in the historically low-turnout elections. Ballots were widely distributed and allowed to be submitted by mail as an emergency measure in the face of a pandemic. The process, though, raised costs for districts and created numerous points of confusion for both voters and district officials trying to manage the process.
Borges said the cost of conducting the remote elections has been at least double the cost of typical school elections, which allows voters to request absentee ballots under certain circumstances but is mostly reliant on in-person poll voting.
“I think school districts have to weigh the costs of voter participation with the logistics and expenses of putting on absentee-ballot-only elections,” Borges said.
Originally, districts were to be counting ballots last week, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended the deadline for returning ballots. That emergency extension came after some districts still had not mailed ballots to voters only days before the election, partly as a result of envelope shortages and other delays in printing and mailing so many mail-in ballots.
While in many districts the ballot counting appeared to go smoothly and with little public challenge or contention, according to live video streams of the counting process, Sarartoga Springs served as an example of how the switch to absentee ballots opened the door to a potentially contentious review process.
Bob Turner, a Skidmore College political science professor who attended the ballot tally at Saratoga Springs High School on behalf of candidate Tony Krackeler, posted updates of the slow process on social media. Turner said that a group of poll watchers led by Chris Obstarczyk, chairperson of the Saratoga Springs Republican Party Committee, challenged ballots based on small signature discrepancies and with the potential partisan tilt of a voter in mind. He said certain areas of the district were challenged more than others and that he saw a handful of the ballots of Skidmore students get challenged, arguing the challenges politicized the process.
“This is the challenge of voting by mail,” Turner said, calling the Saratoga experience a “cautionary tale” of widespread mail-in voting. “It gives a well-funded and well-organized campaign opportunities to selectively challenge ballots of voters they don’t like.”
But Obstarczyk said he was there in the same capacity as Turner, a poll watcher working on a behalf of a candidate. He said he was not working as an attorney or local Republican official but did work on behalf of the interests of his candidate, Erika Borman, who won a board seat with a relatively comfortable margin. He acknowledged being strategic with his challenges, focusing challenges based on school zones they thought were or were not favorable. But he also noted that challenges were only possible before ballots were opened, based largely on whether signatures matched voter rolls, and that he was following rules laid out in state election and education law, making challenges that any other poll watcher were entitled to make on behalf of their candidates.
Ultimately, Turner and Obstarczyk agreed that the school district’s attorney, who ruled on the ballot challenges, took a somewhat expansionist view of allowing ballots to be counted if the voter’s intent was clear.