Editorial: A victory for open records - Times Union, New York
ab1630's bookmarks 2018-04-28
"In the more than four decades since it was enacted, New York's Freedom of Information Law has become an essential tool in holding government accountable and protecting our free society. Now, thanks to the decision of an enlightened state appeals court, the law has been significantly expanded — to cover digital voting records. The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court ruled April 12 that scanned images of election ballots are subject to FOIL. The case arose after Essex County's Democratic chairwoman was denied access to digital images of ballots cast in a 2015 local election. She sued the county's election commissioners and won in state Supreme Court. The county appealed, but the appellate court upheld the ruling, declaring that "once electronic ballot images have been preserved in accordance with the procedures set forth in Election Law ... there is no statutory impediment to disclosure and they may be obtained through a FOIL request." In making the ruling, the court analyzed the impact of electronic voting and the new records the process generates. In New York, voters fill out a paper ballot and insert it into a scanner, which counts the vote (or votes, in the case of multiple races) and records an image of the ballot. The images contain no information that would reveal the voter's identity, and to further preserve the secrecy of the ballot, the images are stored in random order on portable flash drives. The content of those drives is permanently stored at local election boards. Accessing these ballots would offer much deeper insight into voting behaviors than the usual basic results, such as whether voters adhere to a single party line or split their tickets among various political parties. The information would be of value to political parties, political scientists, sociologists, journalists and anyone else interested in analyzing and better understanding voting patterns. It would also serve as an additional check of the accuracy of the state's relatively new electronic voting system, something at least one person is looking to take advantage of right away. This past week, Robert Turner, a political science professor at Skidmore College and a member of the commission that unsuccessfully proposed a new city charter for Saratoga Springs, is asking to see all the ballots on last November's charter vote. The proposal was defeated by just 10 votes out of roughly 9,000 cast. In the days of mechanical lever machines, such detailed looks at elections were not possible, recounts were cumbersome, and local election boards, usually staffed by Democratic and Republican party loyalists, were notoriously stingy gatekeepers of information. The digitization of voting has changed all that, in this latest case for the better. Essex County should forgo any further appeals. Instead, with the public's access affirmed, election boards should put it all out there — post the images online, and give the public open access. Such transparency would affirm citizens' right to know — how their democracy works, and whether it's working as it should."