BETHLEHEM — Residents of the Bethlehem Central School District voted yesterday to approve a proposed $97.1 million budget for the 2017-18 school year that will increase staffing and extracurricular options, purchase new technology and equipment, and add two new bus routes to reduce travel times for K-5 students in the Clarksville area.
Voters also approved a proposition to replace 13 large buses and two small buses at a cost of $1,595,000, by a vote of 2,115 to 715.
Ballots cast in Tuesday’s Board of Education election, however, are currently under review after an unusually high number of write-in votes were recorded, district officials said on Wednesday, May 17. The review is being conducted voluntarily by the district, in consultation with the school district’s attorney and the Albany County Board of Elections. All eight candidates have been notified of the manual count and all have been invited to observe the process.
The eight candidates appeared on the ballot on Tuesday, May 16, when voters were asked to choose three people to fill open seats on the Board of Education.
“The ballot designed by the county to meet standards of the new digital voting machines created some voter confusion,” said BCSD Chief Business and Financial Officer Judith Kehoe, who oversees the district’s election process. “We were aware that voters were confused by the ballot based on an unusually high number of voided ballots, however, we would have no knowledge of how votes were cast until we began gathering election results after the polls closed at 9 p.m.”
Kehoe said when the voting machines returned their results, they showed 888 “write-in” votes, an unusually high number for any district vote.
“It’s not uncommon to have a few write-ins every year,” said Kehoe. “However, when the machines turned up more than 800 blank write-in votes, we immediately knew we had an issue that required close examination.
“We contacted our attorneys right away and we were at the County Board of Elections when they opened this morning,” she said. “Both gave us the go ahead to begin a manual count of the write-ins. Before we began, we contacted all candidates to provide them with the opportunity to come and observe the process.”
Rachel Bledi, Republican commissioner at Albany County Board of Elections, which lends the voting machines to the school districts, said the issue was unlikely due to the ballots or the machines. “[Kehoe] is getting into the mechanics of building a ballot, rather than what actually took place,” she said, “which is voting pattern and voting behavior.”
According to Bledi, the ballot design was the same as those used all over the county and the system doesn’t allow for much variation. “We made them very easy to understand,” she said, denying that the ballots were confusing or misleading. “We did not have this problem that occurred in Bethlehem anywhere else in the county to the extent that it did. So, it’s a deviation and you have to look at it and ask why so many people did write-ins in this particular election.”
Bledi said that she looked at the ballot images on Wednesday morning and was unable to identify a cause for the anomaly. “It looked like maybe, in some cases, people were trying to confirm their vote by filling in the oval in the write-in box under the candidate’s name,” she said. “But what’s baffling is that, even though that box says ‘write-in,’ voters did not actually fill in the candidate’s name. . . you would think that they would confirm the choice by writing in the candidate’s name.”
Some of the write-ins, she said, appeared to be legitimate and, in other cases, voters genuinely made a mistake and initially marked the wrong box before scratching that out and filling in the correct oval in the box with the candidate’s name. “We saw a variety of scenarios as to why this occurred,” Bledi said. “But it is a higher than usual amount of error than we normally see.”
One possibility, she suggested, is that one of the candidates instructed voters incorrectly, either by providing a sample ballot and filling it out incorrectly or by giving voters incorrect ballot information.
“This is a very high number of voters who made the same error,” she said. ‘It’s a little weird.”
The district expects to have final election results tonight, along with additional information about voting and the verification process. The information will be shared at the already-scheduled Board of Education meeting which takes place at Eagle Elementary School, located at located at 27 Van Dyke Road in Delmar, at 7 p.m. tonight (May 17).