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Editorial: Get-out-the-vote software for schools is galling

Noel Feustel holds a printout of the website

Noel Feustel holds a printout of the website for Bold Systems LLC in front of his Bayport home. (April 21, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

'If your budget votes are too close to call, EMS can provide the edge you need," read the website of a computer company that sells software to Long Island school districts.

That was a bad message to send.

The programs, referred to as EMS and sold by Bold Systems LLC of Bellport, are designed to track school budget vote turnout in real time and help sway elections by creating call lists of pro-school people who can be encouraged to cast a ballot even while a vote is taking place.

State education officials are investigating reports that more than 60 Long Island districts used some services from Bold Systems. The company offers a variety of products. They range from a simple list of eligible voters in a district up to programs that allow users to create sub-lists -- say, of people likely to approve high spending. The programs also can track who has already voted in an election, and thus indicate who should be called and encouraged to cast a ballot. The existence and purchase by more than a dozen Long Island districts of the specific tracking software, which itself costs $6,300 per district, was uncovered via a Freedom of Information Law request by Bayport civic activist Noel Feustel. He deserves accolades for his digging.

The company suggests compiling lists of parents in the PTA or those with kids in athletics to encourage them to come out and vote. The theory is that such taxpayers would probably support well-funded schools and extracurricular activities.

The problem is, the districts have no right to use such software, or to sway such elections. Attempts by public bodies to selectively influence voter turnout are illegal under state election law.

When taxpayers go to the polls next month to vote on school district budgets, the stakes will be high. Now that a 2 percent cap on property tax increases has been imposed statewide, districts which want to exceed that limit need the approval of 60 percent of voters. Budgets that do not bust the cap need to exceed only 50 percent approval.

PTAs and teachers unions have long used old-fashioned poll watching and chain calling to get out sympathetic voters. So have taxpayer-activist groups that want smaller budgets. Private groups have the right to pursue electoral outcomes, but district employees have no right to manipulate turnout. That's why the possibility that Long Island school districts purchased software designed and advertised for that end is so disturbing.

As the investigation proceeds, several questions must be answered:

Why did the Nassau and Eastern Suffolk BOCES offices, through which the districts made purchases from Bold Systems, approve a company touting illegal election tactics as a vendor?

How did they allow the purchase, specifically, of that company's tracking system?

How many bought it, and has any district actually used the software to influence an election in the five years that districts have done business with Bold Systems?

What safeguards can be put in place to make sure get-out-the-vote software isn't used?

Spending taxpayer money on software that can manipulate voter turnout is a terrible idea. Actually using the software is reprehensible.