The Rural We: Virginia Martin
A life-long resident of the Hudson Valley, Virginia Martin is the Democratic Election Commissioner of Columbia County and was named “Election Integrity Hero” by the Election Transparency Coalition, for orchestrating a 100 percent hand count of the ballots in the 2010 election. She grew up in Kinderhook, and spent a few years in Troy and Albany County. After living in many of the towns in Columbia County, she now lives in Hudson.
I went to school locally because I liked it here. I got my BA in English and communication at Skidmore and a master’s and PhD in rhetoric and communication at RPI. I taught as an adjunct at SUNY Albany before I became election commissioner almost 10 years ago.
I had been an active Democrat, and in 2006 ran for State Assembly in the 103rd district, which was southern Columbia County and northern Dutchess County. I didn’t win, but I gained a lot of exposure and got to know a lot of people. Two years later, when the commissioner position became vacant, a friend of mine urged me to put my name in the hat. At first I didn’t want to. I didn’t think I was qualified, and thought you needed to be a lawyer, but you don’t. My friend finally persuaded me to take the position.
The main responsibilities of the job are registering voters, getting candidates on the ballot, and running and certifying elections. What distinguishes Columbia County is that we hand count far more of the ballots than are required by the state, 100 percent in many races, and in all local races. Additionally, if there’s a race that’s rather close, or that one of us commissioners just wants to know absolutely for certain how the voters voted, or that someone else requests a full hand count on, we hand count 100 percent of that race. The count is done bi-partisanly, and is completely open to the public.
We’re the only county in the country that does that. I get asked to speak about this a lot. Last fall I went to Berkeley to talk about our procedures, and often I go around the state or to Washington, DC, and I do radio interviews, too. I am constantly having conversations with people across the country who want to do how we do it, and how can they get started doing the same thing?
I’ve also become involved with the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). My initial attraction was the chapter’s beautiful 1811 Federal house on lower Warren Street in Hudson. I went there for a tour and was met with a warm welcome by a DAR member. When she learned that my grandmother had been a DAR member, she encouraged me to join. I wasn’t sure about it, but I have kind of a reverence for institutions like DAR that have stood the test of time, and felt it would be an opportunity to learn about it, so I applied. Although we represent varying political persuasions — which we don’t talk about — we have the same goals and interest in history, historic preservation, civic education and respecting and helping the people who are fighting for us or are veterans. There are some really extraordinary women in the chapter who I never would have met otherwise. Even though we’re on different sides of the aisle, we work so well together.
I joined the Friends of Taconic State Park because of my interest in the 19th-century ironworks on the site; I love industrial archeology and history. And because I started mentoring a young girl eight years ago, I got involved with the Hudson Literacy Fund, which supports the children’s book festival. My mentee was in third grade when I first met her — she’s now a junior — and I’m still working with her.
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