Correction: Candidates Justin St. Juliana and Bridget Flanigan didn’t mention critical race theory during the campaign, though they did support more inclusive education. However, other candidates did explicitly push against critical race theory being used in classrooms. These updates have been made.

DRYDEN, N.Y.—The Dryden Central School District Board of Education’s election campaign season was a tad rocky over the few weeks preceding the May 18 vote, but a petition asking for an investigation into voting totals has heightened election tension to new levels.

The results were surprising, not only for their winners but for just how remarkably close all the candidates were bunched: Of the six candidates vying for four positions, the highest vote recipient, progressive candidate Bridget Flanigan, received 606 votes, while the last place candidate, Lawrence Lyon, received 564. Voters were allowed to choose up to four of the six candidates, as well as vote on the district’s proposed budget.

Ron Szymanski was the lone board member facing reelection to retain his seat—Flanigan, Justin St. Juliana and Nancy Crawford, all newcomers, were each elected to the board, defeating incumbents Lyon and Joan Stock.

Race in the classroom had become a central part of the campaign, and the results showed the divide in opinion that exists in Dryden on the topic: St. Juliana and Flanigan, the top two vote getters, ran progressive campaigns pushing a need for more inclusive education measures. Other candidates, such as Szymanski, published campaign materials explicitly pushing back on things like critical race theory in classrooms.

Almost immediately after the results were tallied and announced, a petition was initiated calling for the district to “investigate 333 unregistered voters in the 5/18/21 Dryden Schools Election.” As of June 1, 89 people had signed the petition, though it had not yet reached its initial goal of 100 supporters. The first three comments on the petition are from, apparently, candidates in support of the petition’s calls for an “investigation,” including two, Crawford and Szymanski, who won.

The relatively high number of unregistered voters appears to be the primary question of the petition, though district officials point out that the number of that type of voter is volatile each year. Compared to other years, that figure was indeed higher than normal this year: 29.26 percent of voters were unregistered in the 2021 election; before 2020, when numbers are murky because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the last three elections had 16.62 percent, 9.71 percent and 19.11 percent unregistered voters of the total vote count.

Additionally, Lyon said that he felt there was a far higher than usual number of people who voted only on the board of education candidates, as opposed to voting on both the board of education races and the budget proposal. Crawford, St. Juliana and Flanigan did not answer requests for comment.

An unregistered voter is someone who isn’t on the district’s voter books anymore and must sign an affidavit of their residence and show ID when voting to prove their eligibility—they’re automatically removed from the books if they haven’t voted in five years, among other factors. It should be noted, though, that unregistered voters are legally allowed to vote in Dryden Board of Education elections, unlike in the Ithaca City School District elections—the only criteria someone has to meet to vote in Dryden is be a resident of the district for at least 30 days prior to the election, 18 years old, and a citizen of the United States.

“I don’t like to use the term ‘unregistered’ as folks are getting that confused with thinking that they have to be a registered voter to vote in a school board election,” said Carrie Merriman, the DCSD district clerk. “This year we had 333 community members that were required to sign declarations. Again, this does not necessarily mean they have never voted in our election before, it means that they haven’t voted in the last five years. […] Clearly, this number can fluctuate from year to year and this can be based on a variety of factors (i.e. number of seats available on the BOE, BOE campaigns, budget recommendations, etc.).”

The issue was broached at the last Dryden Board of Education meeting as well, though the petition met some significant backlash among commenters there.

“I just want to express disappointment and sadness in the poor role models of the losing faction of this election,” said Mike Bishop, speaking in opposition of the election results challenges. Others joined him, saying they felt the objections were tantamount to the failed attempts of former President Donald Trump to challenge the results of the 2020 election. “The actions of this faction are, in fact, Orwellian (…) Our own little lie, but one with big consequences, trying to create a lack of confidence.”

At that meeting, Board of Education President Margie Malepe said that the board had already looked into examining the vote, and that such a procedure would have to go through the Education Commissioner, which is not something the district itself can request.

In order to actually overturn the results of the election, complainants would have to show that the district itself engaged in improper conduct that influenced the election outcome, or that the fairness of the elections was violated by pervasive errors, according to NYS election law.

When asked, Merriman assured that the election had been conducted fairly and adherent to normal codes.

“There is no evidence that people from other municipalities voted in our election,” Merriman said.

In an interview with the Ithaca Voice, Lyon said he wanted to emphasize that those behind the petition, and the community member that he said has formally filed a request with the school district to investigate the votes, do not want their quest seen as a way to insult the staffers working the election.

“The people that the district hires to run the annual meeting, which includes the votes for board of education and any propositions including the budget, that cadre of people from the community is pure gold and nobody is saying anything to impugn the competence of those individuals,” Lyon said, further claiming that he was happy about the robust turnout of voters. “It’s simply, these numbers are so unusual that it seems reasonable to look into them and just make sure that everything is as it appears.”

As was seen during the meeting, the petition has already met dismissals from at least some community members, especially since it is being boosted in part by candidates who lost. Lyon insisted that the petition is not a case of “sour grapes” because he was defeated along with Stock after a contentious and, in Lyon’s words, politicized campaign season.

“That would be a misinterpretation of our desire to examine the 333,” Lyon said. He didn’t want to speculate about what might disqualify any of the votes under examination. “There’s no desire on our part to manipulate anything or to achieve a different result. We just want to know that the vote lies flat.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com