WATERTOWN — While the novel coronavirus may have taken the world by storm and put a halt to many things for months on end, voting on school district budgets continued in full force — to a surprising degree.
Following an Executive Order stating that districts had to send out absentee ballots to registered voters, votes tallied Tuesday night showed a large increase in the percentage of votes from this year compared to last; with Watertown showing the highest increase in the tri-county area at 776 percent.
In the city, vote counters were hard at work from 5 p.m. Tuesday to 2 a.m. Wednesday, choosing to continue and finish everything rather than stop and start up again in the morning. Watertown Superintendent Patricia LaBarr didn’t make it home until 3 a.m. and said she was so excited the budget had passed she was unable to go to sleep.
All reported area budget votes passed by wide margins, with only Indian River and Alexandria not having reported their numbers by 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Of the 14,247 ballots sent out in the Watertown City School District, 3,557 votes were tallied for the budget, compared to 406 in 2019, resulting in a 776 percent increase. According to Ms. LaBarr, over the past four years the average has been around 529.
“My hope is no matter what happens with the process that we have now really proven that a lot of people took interest in the voting,” Ms. LaBarr said. “We learned a lot through the process and while it was difficult and time consuming, if we had to in the future, with more time we could do better.”
Though some voters weren’t happy with the absentee ballots, preferring to vote in person and writing as much on their ballots, which automatically rendered them void, many took it upon themselves to take advantage of the process and make their votes count.
Ms. LaBarr said the district learned that if it were to take on this kind of voting overhaul again in the future, more help would be needed and if more time were allotted, ballots that could be scanned would be looked at to streamline the process.
“I’m really quite pleased with the number of people that returned, I believe that we made history through this process,” Ms. LaBarr said. “At the end of the day the budget was approved, it’s a win for the students. Had this budget not been approved, there were things we’d have to scale back on and for that reason alone I’m super excited.”
Moving forward, Ms. LaBarr said she would highly encourage voters in the district to exercise their right to vote in any mode they preferred, be that in person or via absentee ballot.
Other Jefferson County schools that saw large increases in voting percentages were South Jefferson, with 1,776 votes this year compared to 262 in 2019 — a 578 percent increase — and Carthage, with 1,692 votes compared to 558 in 2019, resulting in a 203 percent increase.
Up north in St. Lawrence County, Massena experienced the highest increase of 529 percent; with 2,490 votes tallied this year compared to 396 from last year. Canton came in second with a 276 percent increase over last year’s total of 460 budget votes compared to 1,729 this year. The Ogdensburg budget vote passed with 1,900 votes as opposed to the 565 from 2019 — a 236 percent increase.
In Lewis County, the Lowville school district tallied 1,460 votes compared to 313 last year, a 367 percent increase. In Beaver River, votes tallied last year totaled 429. This year, the district counted 1,207 budget votes, a 181 percent increase.
South Lewis came in at a 424 percent increase over last year’s vote total of 242 with 1,267 votes this year, but District Clerk and Business Administrator Berry Yette hopes voting fully by absentee ballot never happens in the district again.
According to Mr. Yette, the district sent out about 3,000 envelopes with two ballots per envelope and he, along with four others, began tallying votes at 5 p.m. and were up working until about 12:30 a.m. to get everything done.
“I’m just glad that it passed, it was a lot of work,” Mr. Yette said. “The Governor’s Executive Order kept making changes on us right up until the end really, I’m glad it’s over.”