ITHACA, N.Y.—After a contentious and questionable election day in the Ithaca City School District, the district’s Board of Education has voted to certify the election results, theoretically finalizing the voting totals that resulted in two new board members, an $148 million annual budget and more.
Though there was eventually an almost unanimous vote to certify the results, with the exception of the absent Patricia Wasyliw and Nicole LaFave, who abstained, the vote came after about 40 minutes of explanations, clarifications, apologies and more from board members and legal representatives for the district.
Most of that discussion surrounded three of the four main issues that arose throughout the day Tuesday: inaccurate signage at polling places stating that Benjamin Mumford-Zisk had withdrawn from the race, more inaccurate signage that told voters they could only pick up to three candidates in the Board election (they could actually pick 4), and at least two voting locations temporarily running out of ballots in the afternoon. (Update: The recording of the meeting has now been posted)
Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell motioned for discussion of the election situation, which led to LaFave airing her concerns. LaFave and fellow board members Chris Malcolm (“We understand this was a mess,” he said at one point, apologizing to voters) and Erin Croyle all emerged as the most disturbed by Tuesday’s issues, though Eversley Bradwell said that he had been on the phone all day to stay updated and wanted to maintain some distance since the board is not technically involved in the election process (Moira Lang also made statements to that effect).
“Before I can vote, I need to know that the election isn’t void given everything that happened,” LaFave said. “I personally feel like, maybe it wasn’t intentional, but there was voter suppression in terms of folks not being able to vote, folks feeling like they couldn’t vote for who they wanted to vote for.”
Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown initially deferred to a statement that the district somewhat quietly released on its website during the day Wednesday. That basically outlined the district’s reasoning for putting up the signs about Mumford-Zisk, which is that staffers thought he was withdrawing though he never actually did, and that last year’s signs were being reused, which led to the “vote for up to 3” blunder.
Brown later said he hadn’t heard that voting locations were running out of ballots, though Board member Moira Lang confirmed she had been told at a polling spot that they had run out of ballots (though Lang said those workers also said the ballots were replenished soon and claimed everyone who had to wait to vote was able to vote).
Kate Reid, legal counsel for ICSD, then joined the meeting for a brief but informative time. First and foremost, Reid reiterated maybe the most important point of the night: that via her interpretation of state education law, the board didn’t actually have the authority to overturn the election. It echoed the sentiment that is expressed in the district’s statement.
“The Board of Education does not have the authority to change, recount, or alter the results of a school board election,” in the letter’s words.
Now, to the point of whether the election would be overturned if challenged and handed up to the New York Commissioner of Education for review, which would appear to be the next step. Reid said that there isn’t really an analogous example of a Board of Education election with this menagerie of mistakes, but that she doesn’t think it rises to the level of the commissioner ordering a revote. Relatedly, Reid said she had spoken to someone from New York State United Teachers who relayed that after a review, the statewide teachers union would not be pursuing a challenge.
“What the commissioner looks at when she receives an election challenge is not simply ‘Was there an irregularity?’ but was that irregularity causably connected to some sort of negative outcome in the election that actually thwarted the will of the voters,” Reid said. “We haven’t done a complete post-mortem of the situation yet […] But what I would say is that there are several facts so far that have come to light that lead me to believe the commissioner likely would not set aside the election based on this error.”
Reid’s reasoning for that semi-conclusion is that the time the signs were displayed at polling stations telling voters they only could vote for three people was “reasonably limited,” which she identified as “two hours maximum at any polling site, in some instances less,” though polls were only open for nine hours total. In addition, Reid said she understands that the ballots themselves told voters to select up to four candidates.
Things got a bit more confusing when dealing with the Mumford-Zisk situation. A brief overview: Mumford-Zisk said he was unaware that he needed to be a resident of ICSD for one continuous year prior to the election to serve on the board, and obviously the district did print his name on the ballots despite his ineligibility, so they thought he had met the requirements; the issue was uncovered the night before the election and then discussed between Mumford-Zisk and a district lawyer an hour or so before polls opened on Tuesday. The outcome of that conversation depends on who you ask, but either way, Reid said the district thought Mumford-Zisk was dropping out and felt it important to convey that to voters—the problem being that Mumford-Zisk never did formally withdraw from the race.
Reid also said that around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday she was informed that Mumford-Zisk was not withdrawing, and after a call to Brown, the decision was made to change the signs to say he was ineligible (if voters had a different experience in terms of timing, please reach out). Still, Reid said that she felt it wouldn’t rise to the level of overturning the election, in her opinion.
Croyle expressed some disbelief that the Mumford-Zisk issue took place, and that it wouldn’t be a larger threat to the standing of the election.
“Electioneering precedent’s set that you leave the name on the ballot,” Croyle said. “If someone dies, you leave their name on the ballot. That person is then declared ineligible at that time, and then the person with the next most votes would take the seat. It really threw me off as a voter, and as a political science person, to see how Ben’s situation was handled. I have literally never seen anything like that before.”
Reid, though, insisted that the decision to put up the signs was actually made in the interest of transparency, considering it would be odd for the district to proceed with an election including a candidate that it knew before voting began was ineligible for the seat. Reid said if the district hadn’t acted, it would’ve just provoked more suspicion from voters—though her argument is hurt by the fact that when the district did act, they put “withdrawn” instead of “ineligible.”
As for the budget’s approval, Brown thanked voters for their continued overwhelming support for the budget, which included a 7.2% tax levy increase and needed 60% approval to pass. The budget received nearly 70% of the vote.
“A special thank you to our community for supporting us,” said Brown. “This budget puts us in a great position to support young people and our staff in the near future.”