A Mercer County Superior Court judge today tossed out a lawsuit filed by a Princeton couple challenging the local school district’s use of electronic voting at public meetings.
Judge Mary Jacobson ruled that the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education’s use of an electronic voting system at meetings does not violate the state’s open public meetings act. Joel Schwartz and Corrine O’Hara challenged the use of the electronic system at the June 12 school board meeting. The school board voted at that meeting to approve a 10-year sending and receiving contract with Cranbury for high school students, but some members of the audience could not read the screen that showed how each board member voted, while some audience members could. One reporter sitting in the front row could read the screen, and one reporter sitting six rows back could not.
Jacobson said the board properly noticed the June 12 meeting, and that the intended use of the electronic system is to allow the public to see how each member of the board votes. The board was not trying to vote in secret as the lawsuit claimed, she said. She also placed the burden on the public to notify officials when they can’t read the screen.
“Unfortunately in the certifications, 13 people believed they did not see the vote,” Jacobson said. “The video is clear. It shows that the screen is difficult to read. Watching the video, it was in fact difficult to read. But there has been no suggestion that any member of the public brought this to the attention of the board.”
Jacobson said according to district officials, the electronic system votes are displayed online on the district’s website in real time.
“Even after the vote, there was no objection. It was never brought to anyone’s attention, certainly not immediately following the vote,” Jacobson said. “The court can’t find that there was a violation when there were efforts made to ensure that the meeting was open to the public.”
She said the inability of some members of the public to read the screen was an unfortunate situation. “Not being able to see what each vote was at the time does not violate the Open Public Meetings Act (though).” Jacobson said. “I certainly think it is better for the public to know how each member voted. That there were some technical or visibility problems, to me, does not violate the act.The essence of the public process was there. The meeting itself was recorded in live time. Role call voting is not required by the (open public meetings) act itself. The act allows a certain flexibility for boards to do their business. Electronic voting is not precluded by the act.”
The court should not micromanage how a board chooses to do its voting, Jacobson said. “The board now knows of the problems, through litigation, and it will be able to take steps to ensure the dimming of lights or a roll call,” she said.
Even if the electronic vote had been a technical violation, Jacobson said it would not require the voiding of the vote, or any other vote. She said there was no indication of a bad motive on the school district’s part, and said the public’s ability to participate in the meeting was not harmed even though some people did not know how school board members voted.
“We respect the judge’s opinion, though we disagree with it. We continue to believe our original cause of action was correct, and that transparency in government is essential. If people attending a public meeting are unable to know, in the moment, how their elected representatives vote, why bother to hold public voting at all?,” O’Hara and Schwartz said in a written statement. “Even the judge said she was unable to comprehend from the video of the June 12 meeting how the members of the board voted…Regardless of how the Princeton community feels about our action or the Judge’s decision, we hope that all of us can agree that adherence to the Open Public Meetings Act is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process.
Schwartz and O’Hara have not said whether they plan to file an appeal.