By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — Dr. Charles Dewald believes campaign contributions improve the quality of the election process, giving qualified candidates the resources they need to reach voters.
While a lot of business owners like Dewald feel the same way, his firm has a unique distinction.
Since the 1980s, Dewald’s company — NTS Data Services of Niagara Falls — has been providing software and various services to the Niagara County Board of Elections.
Records on file with the New York State Board of Elections show that since 2006 NTS has contributed nearly $50,000 to various candidates and political parties in Niagara and Erie counties.
Dewald defends the practice, insisting his firm’s campaign contributions have in no way enhanced his company’s standing with local officials or compromised the integrity of the election process itself.
He also correctly notes that many of the political leaders his firm has supported in recent years would tell anyone who asked the exact same thing.
“If you talk to the commissioners and you talk to the party chairmen, you would find that they trust us implicitly,” Dewald said. “Why? Because we earned their trust.”
As Dewald predicted, both of the county’s election board commissioners as well as several elected officials and political party leaders who have received donations from the company in recent years said NTS has provided nothing less than top-notch service to the community.
“As a vendor, they are excellent,” Republican Elections Commissioner Mary Ann Casemento said.
Dewald said his firm does not receive any special attention for its donations, nor he said is NTS in a position to do any favors for any candidates, on its contribution list or otherwise.
“The only favor we do for Niagara County is we do an excellent job,” Dewald said. “That’s the only political favor we do. We do wonderful work.”
Role in the process
NTS has grown from humble beginnings on Military Road in Niagara Falls. Today, the company has agreements for election-related services in place with boards of election in 50 counties across the state.
The firm’s website offers “election management services,” including voter registration management, absentee ballot management, election night reporting, voting machine management, full document imaging, poll books and signature digitization. For years, it also has shared a building with Compu-Mail, an affiliate that offers direct mail services and business printing, including, in some cases, to politicians and political parties looking to spread their messages through the mail during campaign season.
Records on file with the county show since signing its original deal with Niagara County in the 1980s, NTS had its service agreement extended in 1993 and several more times since. Each time, county lawmakers, acting on the advice of county attorneys, waived the guidelines requiring the solicitation of bids due to the “unique” nature of the services involved.
In Niagara County, Dewald said NTS primarily offers software used by the board of elections to track voter information and to post election-night results to the board’s website.
According to Dewald, NTS sets up software and systems used by the elections board and provides technical assistance as needed. In essence, he said, the firm provides the “hollow vessel” through which county employees gather and maintain voter information and distribute election-night results to the public.
Dewald notes — as do the county’s Republican and Democratic elections commissioners — that NTS does not provide voting machines. Those are purchased through another vendor. He also notes — as do election commissioners — that NTS staffers are not directly responsible for tallying votes on election nights and that with today’s technology all votes registered on voting machines are recorded on disks within the machines themselves.
“We are involved in the election process only in that we provide the tools,” Dewald said. “We have no hands on in the process.”
Casemento and Democratic Elections Commissioner Nancy Smith agreed, saying the company has “nothing” to do with tallying vote totals on election nights or the operation of voting machines.
Smith and Casemento said the elections board uses NTS software for its voter management system, which keeps track of registered voters and absentees. Both commissioners said the company also provides guidance on the use of its software systems as well as maintenance and repair as needed.
“The process is under our control so there is integrity in the process,” Smith said. “It’s not under anyone else’s control.”
There’s nothing inappropriate about the company’s donations, according to John Conklin, a spokesperson with the New York State Board of Elections. Conklin said there are no provisions under state election law that would prohibit NTS or any other company offering similar services from donating funds to individual candidates or campaign committees. He said the transparency of the state’s filing disclosure system works to show the public who gave what to whom, including in this case.
Dewald notes that his company is exercising its right to donate funds to candidates and political parties of its choice. He also notes that all of his firm’s donations have been made under guidelines set forth by state and local election laws.
In other words, he insists, his firm is following the rules.
“Don’t I have a right running a company to be able to make a donation to any candidate I want to without doing anything illegal?” he added. “I think I do.”COMING MONDAY Politicians weigh in on firm hired by county board of elections