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Lockport Board of Education

A postcard from the Lockport school district that landed in mailboxes districtwide on Saturday erroneously suggests residents are not eligible to participate in the June 9 budget vote and school trustee election if they have not voted in "any school district election/vote during the past four calendar years.”

After suggesting on several occasions in dialogue with reporters and an editor of the Union-Sun & Journal on Thursday and Friday that a school voting history is required, Deborah Coder, assistant superintendent of finance and management services, acknowledged the error on Saturday.

In an email, Coder said the district is working on another correspondence to district residents that will "explain the error and who does qualify to vote." Coder apologized for the mistake on the postcards and said, due to the Memorial Day holiday weekend, the earliest the corrected qualified voter information will be ready for mailing is Tuesday afternoon.

"While I know this does not excuse the mistake that was made (on my watch) on the postcard, I want to assure community members that all qualified voters who are registered with the Niagara County Board of Elections will receive their absentee ballot," Coder said in an emailed response to questions from the US&J on Saturday.

"There is a difference between education election law and county board of elections. In my 13 years as district clerk for the Lockport City School District, I had made the assumption everyone followed the same set of laws. I realize now that is not the case and I can assure the community I will not make that assumption again."

District Superintendent Michelle Bradley did not comment on the matter as of Saturday evening.

The error comes as the district is preparing for an election that will feature voting by absentee ballot only, under emergency procedures put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, the four seats up for election on the school board have attracted many newcomers. Three incumbent trustees are attempting to keep their seats in a contest with eight first-time candidates.

The delivery of inaccurate voter registration information drew criticism on social media from supporters of the newcomer candidates.

Some challengers attempted to use Facebook to spread the word about the district's error, reminding voters that casting a vote in school board elections in the past four calendar years is not a requirement to be eligible to vote this year.

"If you are a registered voter in Lockport you have a right to vote in this school board election !!!," candidate Teria Royster Young said in a Facebook post. "It doesn’t matter if you haven’t voted in a School Board Election it’s your Right !!! And if you don’t receive a ballot by Wednesday of next week please let us know !!!"

Coder first relayed the supposed school voting history requirement to the US&J earlier this week, in response to a reporter's inquiry about the mail-in voting process this year.

In an email, citing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order No. 202.26, she wrote that registered voters in the district would receive absentee ballots by mail and in order to obtain an absentee ballot, district residents must be: "U.S. citizens; at least 18 years old by May 23, 2020; a district resident for 30 days immediately preceding the vote; and registered to vote with the Niagara County Board of Elections and having voted in any school district election/vote during the past 4 calendar years."

The last clause, referring to a recent school voting history, should have been preceded by an "or" not an "and," Coder acknowledged on Saturday — meaning one is eligible to receive an absentee ballot if they're registered with the county board of elections or they have a recent school voting history.

Coder acknowledged there are three ways an adult resident of the Lockport district can receive an absentee ballot for the upcoming school election:

• Be a registered voter with the Niagara County Board of Elections;

• Be registered with the school district by having voted in a school election at least once in the past four years; or

• Register through the voter registration link on the state Department of Motor Vehicles website (The deadline for registering was Saturday).

Coder said the language on the back of the postcard mailed this week was from the law firm of Guercio and Guercio, which she said works with the NYS Association of School Business Officials, a non-profit affiliated with the state Department of Education that provides assistance to school districts.

"I used the actual language from that law firm and I cannot confirm why they published it that way for our organization," Coder said.

Coder said the postcards were mailed by NTS Data Services, a private firm that works with county boards of elections across the state. She said the company will be mailing 21,420 absentee ballots to people registered with the Niagara County Board of Elections in the Lockport school district even if they have not voted in a school election in the past four years.

If they receive a ballot, they are considered eligible to vote, she said.

"All registered voters will receive an absentee ballot being prepared by NTS Data Services," she said. "The district has not prepared the eligible voter list or the absentee ballots going to registered voters. That process is totally independent."

Coder offered assurances that all qualified voters will be allowed to register to vote in accordance with the process established by the Niagara County Board of Elections.

The opening of absentee ballots — all ballots — on June 9 is being done by trained Niagara County Board of Elections election inspectors, she added.

"The Lockport City School District follows and will continue to follow the guidance of the Niagara County Board of Elections and NTS Data Services," she said.

• • •

When Coder emailed voting information to the US&J earlier this week and was questioned about what appeared to be five qualifications for voting on June 9 — citizenship, age, length of residency, registered voter status with the county and a local school voting history — she told a reporter that was not the district's language and that it came from the county Board of Elections.

“I believe the intention is to notify those who may have registered to vote at one point in time, that they will not be on the registered voter list if they did not vote in any type/form of election during the last four years," she said in an email. "I believe the Niagara County Board of Elections drops them as a registered voter. Because our district uses personal registration to determine our eligible voters we must use the list from the Niagara County Board of Elections.”

Coder offered examples, claiming that: if a voter who was registered at age 18 did not vote for four years, they would be “dropped as a registered voter.” So would a 50-year-old voter who didn’t vote for four years, she suggested.

In response to Coder's comments, Niagara County Republican Elections Commissioner Jennifer Sandonato indicated on Thursday that the the information did not come from the board of elections and that it is "absolutely inaccurate" to suggest registered voters in the district may lose their active status for failing to vote during a period of four years, or for any time period.

“A registered voter may stay active and never vote,” Sandonato said.

Told of Sandonato’s response and determination that there is no requirement to have a voting history to remain eligible to vote, Coder replied, “Niagara County will have to answer your questions.”

The district's prior wording to describe voter eligibility was striking because, taken literally, it suggested the vast majority of district residents might be ineligible, since turnout to school elections is typically low. Last year's budget vote drew a scant 841 voters.

In her Saturday email, Coder acknowledged she received a proof of the language on the post card on May 8. Asked why the district didn't change the language or cancel delivery of the postcards, she suggested it was too late for them to be pulled from the print schedule.

"The postcards were prepared by NTS Data systems, printed and in the mail 'pipeline' when I realized the error," she said.

"I added the requirement 'must be registered with Niagara County Board of Elections' and changed the (registration deadline) date to be May 23, 2020 as outlined in our legal notice," Coder said. "I did attempt to have the language corrected when it was brought to my attention, but I was told it was too late by NTS and besides they stated I had already given my approval. When I asked if we could send out a corrected card they also stated no as they were busy preparing the printing of absentee ballots."

Coder did not acknowledge the error on the post card at any time during her email exchanges and a telephone conversation with a US&J reporter on Thursday or Friday.

Filled-out absentee ballots must be received by the district by 5 p.m. June 9.

Any person who believes they're registered and does not receive an absentee ballot should contact Coder at dcoder@lockportschools.net or 478-4828 during normal business hours. Her office will ensure they get one from NTS after verifying eligibility with the county.

In addition, Coder said her office will have absentee ballot packs available for voters to pick up at 130 Beattie Ave. through 4:30 p.m. June 8.

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