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Bard College's Lawsuit Alleging Voter Suppression Awaits Judge's Decision

Bard College Center For Civic Engagement
Courtesy of Bard College
Bard College Center For Civic Engagement

After filing a lawsuit earlier this month, Bard College in Dutchess County is awaiting a state Supreme Court judge’s decision on its petition to move an off-campus polling site on campus. Bard College’s president and students allege a history of voter suppression against young voters. This year, though, it’s also about safety during COVID-19.

The lawsuit filed by Bard College and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, which supports student voting across the country, claims the Dutchess County Board of Elections allegedly violated students’ voting rights, and seeks to move the District 5 polling site in Red Hook to the Bard campus. Jonathan Becker is Bard’s Executive Vice President and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He says the polling site at the Church of St. John the Evangelist is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and related state law.

“Our essential claim is that the space on campus, which is 2,200 square feet, is far safer than the current polling site, which is approximately 700 square feet,” says Becker. “Now, we don’t only think this. The Town Board of Red Hook has asked the Board of Elections to move the polling site, and even the church, which hosts the polling site, has said that they do not believe that their site is safe.”

Becker says the site is about a mile-and-half from campus, and is a dangerous walk along a windy, country road, inaccessible by public transit. Kathy Gaweda is a senior at Bard College.

“In the midterm elections in 2018, we had folks lining up outside and we had to provide tents to shield them from the rain, and it’s on an unlit road, and all of these conditions that even in the best of years can be frustrating,” says Gaweda.

She also team leader of Election@Bard, a campus student group that is a plaintiff in the case.

“And so, as a student group that is meant to help voters at Bard, it’s meant to not only register them to vote but also to get them out to vote, to educate them about the folks on the ballot, to make it a holistic experience, this is definitely in our purview and that we want students to be safe while voting no matter how they choose to vote,” Gaweda says. “And so making sure that the polling site is safe and accessible is definitely part of our mission and what we’re trying to achieve.”

She says the college has provided shuttles in past elections, and will do so again if the site is not moved, with COVID protocols, such as social distancing and disinfecting practices. The Bard College community comprises the majority of the district’s eligible voting population at nearly 70 percent. Becker says the judge is sitting with written comments from both sides.

“In fact, in the Board of Elections side, they have two different comments because the Republican commissioner is opposing the suit and the Democratic commissioner actually supports moving the polling site,” Becker says. “The judge has indicated that she will get back to us. We do not know whether there will be hearings or whether the written materials will be sufficient for her to make a decision.  We’ve asked for immediate relief in the form of… immediate relief being to move the polling site to campus.”

Republican Dutchess County Elections Commissioner Erik Haight, in written response to a request for comment, says moving a polling location weeks before the election would be disruptive, cause confusion and potentially disenfranchise hundreds of voters who have voted at the church for decades. He says the Bard case is without merit and the plaintiffs’ lawyers lack a basic understanding of Election Law and Article 78. Haight says the church strikes the perfect balance between the needs of the permanent voters of Red Hook’s District 5 and the needs of the college students who feel a few minutes in a shuttle is worthy of an expensive legal action. Democratic Dutchess County Elections Commissioner Beth Soto did not respond to a request for comment.

Becker is also director of Bard College’s Center for Civic Engagement.

“And it’s a story about a microcosm of what’s going on throughout country, which is an attempt to suppress certain groups from voting,” Becker says.

In Bard’s case, Becker alleges, students.

“The real issue is, because we’ve seen it here consistently for more than two decades, is an attempt by the Republican commissioner to stop students from voting, to make it as difficult as possible for them to vote where they live, work and study, and we, as educators, simply cannot accept that,” Becker says. “We think it’s critical that we demonstrate to our students that we are on their side and that it is actually, democracy is a core value that Bard has and that we will do what we can to support them.”

Becker says generations of student leaders have worked to bring a polling site to campus dating back to the early 2000s.

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