School budget voter turnout more than tripled in shift to all-absentee balloting

Early voting and absentee voting have proven very popular among New Yorkers.
Early voting and absentee voting have proven very popular among New Yorkers.

CAPITAL REGION — A tidal wave of voters had their say on annual school district budget votes in June after the vote was shifted to all-absentee balloting and districts were required to mail ballots to all residents.

Turnout statewide more than tripled as nearly 1.6 million New Yorkers voted on school budgets and for school board members across the state, according to a report released Thursday by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Only about 1 percent of school districts in the state had fewer voters this year than the year before.

“Nearly every school district saw an increase in the number of ballots cast,” according to the report. “In fact, only nine of the 675 school district included in this analysis experienced a decrease in the number of voters compared to last year.”

The surge in turnout came after years of sliding turnout in school elections, which had seen falling turnout since the state imposed a tax cap on school districts.

The turnout did not appear to dramatically alter the outcomes of the budget votes across the state – 11 budgets were rejected this year compared to 12 the previous year – but it did draw far more voters into the typically low-turnout spring elections. The share of “yes” votes did decline across the state as turnout increased but not enough to threaten budgets from passing, according to the analysis. Districts in the Capital Region, for example, registered a “yes” vote of nearly 75 percent in 2019, sliding to nearly 71 percent in 2020.

The school votes, which were delayed from May to June and moved to all-absentee balloting during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, also served as one of the first indications of a broader surge in absentee balloting in the face of the pandemic and the challenges of conducting elections heavily reliant on mailed ballots. Some residents complained about not receiving ballots that were supposed to be mailed to them, and the timeline of the election was so compressed that some ballots didn’t arrive to voters until days before they were due back – not enough time to guarantee the ballots would arrive by mail in time to be counted. It took some districts multiple days to count the ballots and announce results. But districts also used drop-boxes, and voters who had never participated in a local school election learned they had a new election to wait for each year.

Across the Capital Region, districts on average experienced a more than doubling of voters from 2019 to 2020, according to an a comparison of vote tallies in over 90 school districts in the four BOCES districts encompassing the Capital Region and surrounding areas. A small handful Sharon Springs saw fewer voters in 2020 compared to 2019 – 221 voters this year to 287 last year. So did Wheelerville: 153 voters this year to 160 voters in 2019.

But many districts saw thousands more voters than in previous years. In Schenectady, turnout increased from 1,065 voters in 2019 to 3,736 votes this year. Amsterdam more than quadrupled its turnout, climbing from 531 voters in 2019 to 2,865 votes this year, a more than five-fold increase.

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