Riverhead resident Laurie Downs, former Riverhead PTO executive council president and self-described “school district watchdog,” questioned school board members Tuesday night about the district’s use of “illegal” voter-tracking software and demanded to know whether the district ever used the voter database software to influence school district elections.
Downs referred to a Newsday report that certain school districts in Suffolk, including Riverhead, had purchased software that is capable of tracking voter turnout in real time. That capability makes it possible for school officials to conduct electioneering activity that is illegal under state law. Newsday did not report any incidence of such activity, but said the software publisher marketed it to school districts in a way that encouraged officials to do so.
The software publisher’s website, according to Newsday, said its product gives districts the ability to generate call lists of key voting blocs, such as “PTA members, families with kids in athletics . . . to help get out the votes.”
“We purchased that software back in 2008,” Riverhead School Superintendent Nancy Carney said. “It was part of our shared services contract with BOCES,” Carney said. She said 35 school districts in Eastern Suffolk BOCES bought it.
“We only use that software as an electronic tool” to more efficiently keep track of the district’s registered voters, Carney said. “It allows us to know who moves in, who moves out, who is deceased,” she said.
“We have never used the software in any way, shape or form for electioneering,” the superintendent told Downs. “We’re very confident we’ve never done anything we shouldn’t have done. It’s been used only for database management, Carney said.
“All we have is the district’s word,” Downs countered. “We don’t know for sure.”
She questioned whether anyone else had been able to use the software for that purpose.
“What’s ‘Riverhead Vote Yes’?” Downs asked, referring to an ad hoc advocacy group, which dubbed itself “Friends of the Riverhead School District,” that lobbied for passage of the construction bond proposition in 2011 — and conducted a phone call campaign.
“That was totally done by private people,” Carney said. “Voter records are public. Anybody can get access to who’s a registered voter through the board of elections,” she said.
The district’s use of the software for any purpose creates “the impression of doing something illegal,” Downs said.
“It doesn’t matter what you say,” Downs said. “You could say for the next 10 years that you’re not using it that way. It appears that you could be. After all, you took an unpopular budget and an unpopular bond and they passed,” Downs said. A $123.9 million facilities improvement bond was rejected by voters in February 2010. A revised $78.3 million bond was passed by district voters in October 2011.
At that point in her comments, the demeanor of board vice president Greg Meyer angered Downs, who chastised him from the podium for shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head.
“You are right to question,” Meyer told Downs. “What bothers me, though, is when you stand up there and say you dont trust us. That bothers me. The voters trusted us to do the right thing for the taxpayers and the kids —”
“None of you have been involved in this district as long as I have,” Downs interrupted. She then got into a brief back-and-forth with board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse, who asked her not to shout.
“It’s too bad,” Downs said. “I can express my opinion,”
“You can express your opinion,” Cotten-DeGrasse responded. “I’m asking you not to shout.”
“I’m calling [Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas] Spota in the morning,” Downs shot back, and left the podium.
On Wednesday, Downs said she had indeed called the district attorney’s office and they asked her to provide them with the Newsday article.
Downs said she had no specific information about the district using voter registration data illegally, but district officials historically have violated the public trust, she said, so she and other people are suspicious.
“We all went through a lot of stuff with this district, as someone who’s been around a while knows. It’s not specifically this board or this superintendent,” she said in a phone interview. “We’ve been lied to so many times,” she said, “the perception is out there.”
Justin Cobis, a Riverhead resident and teacher who was an organizer of the “Friends of the Riverhead School District” bond advocacy group, said Wednesday the group never used any kind of software to target or contact voters.
“I didn’t even know there was such a thing,” Cobis told RiverheadLOCAL Wednesday afternoon. “We made a FOIL request for a list of registered voters,” he said.
“This bond and this budget is still very unpopular,” Downs said in an interview. “Then when you hear about this [software] you wonder what was really going on.”
Photo caption: Laurie Downs, of Riverhead, speaking on the school construction bond proposition at a board of education meeting in 2010. RiverheadLOCAL file photo by Denise Civiletti
Correction: A previously published version of this article incorrectly identified the name of the company that publishes the database software used by the school districts. The correct name of the company is Bold Systems LLC, not Bold Software LLC. Bold Systems LLC was not purchased by LogMeIn Inc. as stated in the previously published version of this article.