A Freedom of Information Law request filed by the Reverend Donald Havrilla, on behalf of the Southampton Full Gospel Church, which he leads, has become a cautionary tale with a classic children’s storybook lesson: Be careful what you wish for.
On April 18, the Southampton Village church requested information from the Suffolk County Board of Elections—namely, a list of all registered voters in Southampton Town, their party affiliations and the frequency in which they vote in elections. Rev. Havrilla maintains that officials at his church, who are politically active and tend to lean toward the conservative in their stance on national issues, wanted to utilize the information requested, all of which is available to the public, in order to know where in the municipality to focus their advocacy campaigns.
More than a month later, on May 27—and after first refusing but finally agreeing to pay a $25 fee for the public information—Rev. Havrilla said the Board of Elections honored his request. But church officials quickly realized that they were provided with thousands of pages of documents on a CD, with the information they specifically requested buried under mountains of data.
That’s because the Board of Elections, as has been its policy, was releasing the requested information for all Suffolk County residents, not just those living in Southampton Town. Officials in that office defended their actions by explaining that they release all information so they cannot be accused of purposely withholding certain documentation.
But that policy, argues Rev. Havrilla and others, has had a chilling effect in that basic information cannot be ascertained without the assistance of someone with experience in electronic spreadsheets.
“The info is there, it is just somewhere in a massive pile of data,” Rev. Havrilla said. “What we got was roadblocks of $25 fees and 19 years worth of data—11 million records, dating back to 1993.”
After spending about a week unsuccessfully trying to make sense of the information, Rev. Havrilla said he turned to Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman’s office, seeking individuals who have experience analyzing political data. After spending another four hours with Mr. Schneiderman and an IT expert in the legislator’s office, Rev. Havrilla said he agreed to allow that individual to continue reviewing the documentation for the next few days to see what could be uncovered.
Five days later, the data was returned in a usable format, including a key instructing the church leader how to read the gaggle of numbers. But, according to James Boyd, a volunteer at the church, even with the extra time, the expert’s results “were off by 300 to 400” voters.
“They gave him crazy amounts of data that the computer guys couldn’t even figure out,” Mr. Schneiderman said about the documentation provided by the Board of Elections. “It wouldn’t even go into Excel—it was into the millions of lines.”
Attempting to get the same information through different avenues, Rev. Havrilla said he began requesting other records from the Board of Elections. His requests were met with the same avalanche of documentation. “You wouldn’t believe what we’ve got now,” he said. “Millions more records on more disks.”
Rev. Havrilla explained that he has been repeatedly told by Board of Election officials that the information he is requesting about registered Southampton Town voters is not available.
“We wanted to go deeper. We wanted to look at the town as a whole,” Mr. Boyd said about the request. “If more Democrats are registered to vote here, and a fairly small independent population exists, but Republicans win, what is the reason? We just wanted to see numbers of voter history and registration out here.
“We didn’t suspect anything amiss,” Rev. Havrilla added, noting that the walls put up by the Board of Elections has, however, sparked his interest. “We just wanted the information for purposes down the line. But when we got this instead of a piece of paper, a simple request turned into, wait, is something going on here?”
An employee of the Suffolk County Board of Elections in Yaphank who is familiar with the FOIL request said her office honored it, adding that county workers are not going to format the information that is being supplied. “It is a lot of information, but it is what they asked for,” said the employee, who would only give her name as Betty. “They want to find something, but they don’t want to do the work. We’re not going to do the political work for you.”
Jesse Garcia, an aide to Republican Suffolk County Board of Elections Commissioner Wayne Rogers, said the office supplied the church with “a form [of data] that is easily usable in multiple platforms.” Mr. Garcia also said the church is not receiving any special treatment, noting that if another entity requests similar information, they will also receive data on the entire county, not just one town.
“We’re not prohibiting individuals from tracking a voter,” Mr. Garcia said. “It is in raw data, so we don’t limit programs. The raw data flows very simply into Access and Excel. It is very simple.”
But Rev. Havrilla and others contend that the information provided is not easy to decipher, with some suggesting that it is being deliberately presented in that manner to either discourage people from asking for such data or to downplay irregularities in the record-keeping. The spiritual leader is also questioning the county’s transparency when it comes to such records, and the ethical questions his experience has raised.
“This is the point,” Mr. Boyd said. “If record-keeping is this poor, or purposefully this confusing, how can we trust it? We have had such close elections lately—this stuff is important.”
Mr. Schneiderman agrees that there have been issues when it comes to outsiders accessing records kept by the Board of Elections. “I could understand his frustration,” he said, referring to Rev. Havrilla. “It is not unfounded—there is a real issue here. What good is the info if it is unusable?”
But Mr. Garcia disagrees with that assessment, noting that the county’s policy is to release all information so that officials cannot be accused of purposely withholding information. “The best thing for democracy is to be given the most information possible,” he said, adding that if the county had a different policy, “it would be reverse complaints, conspiracy theories that we were holding back info.”
Bob Freeman, the director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, a state agency that fights for transparency in government, said that the Board of Elections is failing to honor the intent of the law by bombarding the public with voluminous information rather than providing them with the documentation requested.
“If an agency has the ability to make the data available in the format of your choice, and you are willing to pay the requisite fee, which is based upon the actual cost of reproduction, that agency is required to do so by law,” Mr. Freeman said.
“If they argue that it is so easy, then I would counter that they can, too, put it into Excel, then,” he continued. “Do you think politicians get it in a more usable format? I rest my case. In government, we’re supposed to be public servants, you know. They should adhere to the Spike Lee school of life—do the right thing.”
According to Mr. Garcia, the Board of Elections honors all FOIL requests by granting the required information in “whatever form the government has it in.” In response to Mr. Freeman’s comments, Mr. Garcia said he is not in a position to answer, but that Mr. Freeman “can share his opinion with the county attorney’s office.”
Regardless of whether or not any laws have been broken, there remains a disconnect between the Board of Elections and the people the office serves—a relationship that Mr. Boyd likened to a “Laurel and Hardy skit.”
“Other counties have a voting line map online for free,” Mr. Boyd said. “Here, it is $25—and an argument. They’ll $25 you to death before you can find anything meaningful. If you can’t get fundamental data in your own town, you’re in the stone ages.
“At a time, with so much distrust in government, to run into these problems is troubling,” he continued. “It has to be more user-friendly. The system is archaic and subject to mistakes, subject to corruption. Whether or not it is happening, we can’t know, if this is what you get when you try to dig deeper.”
Betty, the Board of Elections employee, said the way in which information is shared by her office hasn’t changed in more than a decade—suggesting that technology issues might also have a hand in the way the office shares data. “We’ve had people using this same CD-ROM for the past 10 years,” she said.
Mr. Freeman agreed that those issues could also be contributing to the apparent disconnect.
“Think about the technology available a decade ago, as opposed to the technology commonplace today,” he said. “Suffolk County, a county with approximately two million people and substantial resources, clearly has the ability to make this data available in a more usable format, and yet the complaints we hear about open government in Suffolk dwarf the complaints we hear from other counties.
“Even when the law doesn’t require they do so, many agencies put a variety of data on their websites, and when they do, everybody wins,” he continued.
As for Rev. Havrilla, he is uncertain what his next step will be to gather the information he has been trying to compile since the spring. Mr. Schneiderman, meanwhile, said he will continue investigating what, if anything, can be done at the county level, and that he would lobby state legislations to make sure that the county offices are doing their best to share public information.
“Everybody should have access,” he said. “Otherwise, only those with deep pockets, able to hire IT guys to interpret for them would be able to participate and influence policy. Listen, we needed a cryptologist to figure it out. I couldn’t figure it out. It took my IT guy a really long time.
“Whether or not you agree with his opinions doesn’t matter,” he continued, referring to Rev. Havrilla. “It is about participating in democracy.”