A Performance Analysis of the Schoharie County Board of Elections
Introduction: Late last fall, at a meeting of Voting Integrity Project representatives and the Board of Supervisors Rules & Legislation Committee, it was discovered that the committee does not receive regular reports from the Board of Elections Department or the Election Commissioners. We know that the Election Commissioners have addressed the Board of Supervisors when specific circumstances suggest the need to do so, but there have not been periodic reports of performance parameters which the Board of Supervisors, as an oversight body, should receive.
When considering performance evaluation of a governmental unit it is important to understand the mission of that unit. An initial inquiry to the county Board of Elections revealed that the unit does not have a written mission statement. Thus we have chosen to use the New York State Board of Elections Mission Statement as a guide for our evaluation effort. That document closes with this statement: “…the board is charged with the preservation of citizen confidence in the democratic process and enhancement in voter participation in elections." (emphasis added).
The following is offered as both an initial evaluation and a suggested format for future reporting which might serve the needs of the Board of Elections and Board of Supervisors.
Voting Statistics Analysis: This report offers analysis of election data for Schoharie County and several other New York counties, which we hope will serve to identify needed reforms or policy changes.
It will consider population demographics, voter registration numbers, voter turnout and certain other voter behaviors for the past five even-year election cycles while comparing Schoharie County to five other counties of similar population numbers and rural character: Allegany, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware and Essex.
The following statistics were sourced from the U.S. Census Bureau and the New York State Board of Elections or calculated from similarly sourced statistics: (see charts in subsequent post)
Estimated total county population (Est. Pop. Herein)
Estimated 18 years or older county population (eligible voters or EV herein)
County total registered voters (RV)
Recorded voter turnout (TO)
Under vote (UV) (most election results do not report under votes or “blank” as a singular statistic. Instead they offer a total of “blank, void & scattering.” We have chosen to use this number to represent the under vote since void and scattering are only a small percentage of the total.
2008 Voting Statistics: The following table (see subsequent post) is provided for those who want to verify the math or logic of our calculations. Similar data and calculations were used throughout our investigation to provide added statistics and inform our findings.
What we’ve learned There are no big surprises here. Schoharie County seems to chart near the other counties in most categories throughout 2000-2008. This is not say there is no room for improvement, there certainly is. It just means that Schoharie County is not alone and that other counties exhibit similar demographic patterns.
Population Changes: Schoharie County does stand out among the sampled counties in one respect, it has gained a few hundred in total population since 2000 while the other counties have lost significant numbers. Note, however, the across the board increase in Eligible Voters despite population losses in the other counties. These numbers indicate that voter registration efforts were significantly more successful in these counties than they were in Schoharie County.
Registered Voters: Schoharie County, with 76.3% of eligible voters registered, ranks second from last to Allegany’s 73.4%. The other counties were all in the low 80th percentile except for top ranking Essex County with 88.7% registered. In Schoharie County one in four eligible voters is not registered. Only Allegany County had a higher percentage with 26.5%. All the other counties have unregistered percentages at least five points lower. Raising the percentage of eligible voters registered clearly should be a goal for Schoharie County.
Voter Turnout: With respect to voter turnout Schoharie County came out on top with 74.3% of registered voters showing up at the polls. We led the other counties by as much as 10 points. However, if the turnout is calculated as a percentage of eligible voters Schoharie County falls in the middle at 56.7%. Obviously the turnout numbers are directly informed by the eligible voters and registered voters statistics.
Under Votes: The 2008 Presidential under vote was very low among the sampled counties. All six counties registered percentages near 1%. But this is not the whole story.
The 2008 general election included a proposition concerning civil service law changes to benefit military veterans. The under vote statistics for this proposition are very telling. Relative to the other counties sampled Schoharie County stood out with the lowest percentage, 57.1%. The other counties ranged from 61.3% to 65.1%. These differences are less instructive than the magnitude of the under votes in all jurisdictions.
Absent the opportunity to question voters we can only speculate as to the causes for such a large number of voters failing to register an opinion on the proposition. It seems likely many voters either didn’t know there was a proposition on the ballot or didn’t have enough information to make a decision. In either case this high under vote seems to indicate a need for increased public education concerning ballot contents and the issues they represent. We believe citizens who are made aware of issues and ballot questions will want to make their opinion known. If we are correct in this assumption then simply paying attention to informing the public will result in greater turnout and fewer under votes.
Mandates: Another statistic which should be a cause for concern is the total of under votes plus the unregistered eligible voters number. In some circumstances this statistic could call into question the legitimacy of a candidate’s selection or the true status of a proposition.
In 2008 the Schoharie County unregistered EV population was 6075. This number of citizens not empowered to vote added to the 8318 under vote on the proposition equals 56% of the whole EV population. Thus the decision for this proposition was made by only 44% of Schoharie County’s eligible voters.
This calculation might not be as significant when considering a national question such as the aforementioned 2008 proposition. However, when the vote concerns a county question or candidate this calculation would be much more important. A local political candidate elected with less than 50% of eligible voters could be said to have not received a mandate. Likewise a ballot question “decided” by less than a majority of the citizens entitled to vote could be subject to challenge.
Observations & Recommendations: The numbers tell us there is a large group of Schoharie County citizens who are not participating in their governance. Many of these citizens could be drawn into greater community involvement, participation in our democratic system and possibly even active political life, if they were invited to become registered voters. This is important, full participation is necessary for democracy to work.
It is not appropriate or constructive to assume that all the unregistered eligible voters remain so of their own volition. Among the most common responses from citizens as to why they don’t vote are “I don’t know anything about the candidates” or “I don’t understand politics.” The relative stability of the statistics seem to indicate that voter registration efforts up to now have not been successful, or that there has been no actual effort made to increase voter rolls. In either case it seems obvious that our voter registration outreach needs to be revised and expanded. Newspapers, civic groups, churches, government agencies, and advocacy groups, all need to be drawn into a coordinated community effort to register citizens as voters.
The statistics also present a powerful argument that present efforts to inform citizens concerning candidates and ballot questions are inadequate. Responsibility for informing the public should not be left only to the political candidates and their supporting partisan organizations. There is a role for government and the media in this effort as well. In years past sample ballots were printed in the newspaper. This practice should be revived. We are also aware of some jurisdictions which actually mail sample ballots to each household prior to election day. Such an effort could be made part of the present post card verification process. For such a mailing to be fruitful as a voter registration effort it will have to be posted to all households early enough to facilitate registration. Radio and cable television must also be utilized to familiarize voters with the candidates and issues.
The voter education effort should be the corner stone of any effort to increase voter registration and voter participation. We believe, that having been adequately informed of the candidates and issues, more citizens will want to be registered and will be motivated to go to the polls on election day.
Unanswered Questions: Typical of such an inquiry this investigation raised more questions than it answered. There is much more work to be done.
We have documented differences but have not tried to discover the causes or reasons beyond what is obvious from the numbers. It could be very informative to compare the administrative structures of the several county governments and their respective Boards of Elections. Is there a County Administrator? Is there a legislative oversight committee? What is the Board of Elections staffing? Is there a professional administration culture prevalent in the county government, including the Board of Elections? For example, is there an administrator or director of the Board of Elections Department and does the department have a written procedure manual with job descriptions and a mission statement? It would also be interesting to compare the media services, community organizations, income levels and government services available in each county.
It’s hard to know what you do not know until you look and ask. We encourage the Board of Supervisors to undertake similar investigations regularly. The research is not very time consuming or difficult. Much of the information is readily available in the public domain. If there is one outcome we would like to see above all else it is that the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors pay more attention to such looking and asking.
This small study has revealed the need for action on a couple of fronts. The Voting Integrity Project hopes that this report points the way forward and assists both the Board of Supervisors and the Board of Elections in the execution of their duties.
“Note, however, the across the board increase in Eligible Voters despite population losses in the other counties. These numbers indicate that voter registration efforts were significantly more successful in these counties than they were in Schoharie County.”
“The numbers tell us there is a large group of Schoharie County citizens who are not participating in their governance.” “In Schoharie County one in four eligible voters is not registered.” “Raising the percentage of eligible voters registered clearly should be a goal for Schoharie County.”
“…this high under vote seems to indicate a need for increased public education concerning ballot contents and the issues they represent.”
“…it seems obvious that our voter registration outreach needs to be revised and expanded.”