NIAGARA FALLS – The city will have about three times as many polling places for the School Board election and school budget vote in May as it did last year.
The city School Board on Thursday unanimously approved a plan to increase the number of polling sites from eight to 23. The vote came about two weeks after the board put off a decision on the matter, with some board members saying they needed more information before being ready to vote.
One day after the Feb. 27 decision to table the matter, some community and church leaders held a protest outside the district’s administration building, saying the board failed to act on a plan that would have reinstated traditional polling sites in predominantly African-American voting districts.
After Thursday’s vote, the Rev. Bruce Points, the pastor of St. John’s AME Church who attended the protest, said the board’s approval shows his community is being heard by board members, that these community members are “actually on their radar.”
“By using improper information to exclude us from the voting process, that’s not the way to involve the community,” Points said. “That’s not the way to get things done in Niagara Falls.”
About 30 members of the public attended Thursday’s meeting, with several calling on the board to approve the change.
The board decreased the number of polling places from 24 to eight prior to last year’s board election and budget vote. At that time and since then, board members explained that their decision was based on the lack of assurance by the Niagara County Board of Elections that there would be enough voting machines available to have 24 sites.
For last May’s vote and a December referendum, the polling sites were the district’s eight elementary schools. For some, switching polling sites is believed to have caused some confusion for some voters.
The county has recently adjusted the total number of legislative districts, changing the number in the city from 24 to 23.
Since the end of last month, state and county lawmakers - including State Sen. George D. Maziarz and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, along with County Legislators Owen T. Steed and Jason Zona - have promised that enough voting machines will be made available.
Steed, who attended Thursday’s meeting, again assured board members, saying, “You won’t run short. We got you.”
If a presidential primary or special election is held within 30 days of the district’s vote, voting machines would become unavailable, officials said.
Board member Vincent “Jimmy” Cancemi told his colleagues he spoke with one of the county’s elections commissioners who guaranteed the machines for this year, but could not say anything beyond that time frame. She also declined, when asked, to provide the assurance for this year in writing, Cancemi said.
If other municipalities request more machines, that may “hold them up again,” Cancemi said he was told.
If the cash-strapped district wanted to buy its own machines, they’d be about $8,500 each, or $195,500 for 23 machines.
The additional costs to the district of increasing the number of polling sites is between about $15,000 and $20,000, officials said.
Increased costs would include higher voter notification costs, increases for county Board of Elections services and election workers, rental of polling sites and the additional costs of required legal advertisements, district officials said.
School district officials said the reduction in polling places did not greatly affect overall voter turnout, but supporters of increasing the number of sites pointed to diminished turnout at Spallino and Wrobel towers, which house a higher percentage of senior citizens and handicapped residents.
While this May’s election and vote seem to be covered, some board members looked ahead and questioned what may happen for future votes, when older voting machines that use levers are not allowed to be used anymore.
Board member Johnny G. Destino called on the county to be more proactive in determining what machines will be needed and what machines will be available for future votes.
“We don’t want to be put behind the eight ball again,” Destino said.
The 23 polling sites will be used in this year’s budget vote and board election, which is May 20.