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Hudson Valley News

Bard College Polling Site Issue Continues

A white sign that says VOTE with an American flag.
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Just before the November election in 2020 and after a long legal battle, a court agreed to allow Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley to serve as a polling site. Now, advocates for voting on the campus are calling on Dutchess County elections commissioners to allocate a location there as an appropriate polling site going forward. They’ve written to the county executive as well.

Jonathan Becker is Bard’s Executive Vice President and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He wrote to the two county elections commissioners earlier this spring, saying it appears the county Board of Elections is on a course to attempt to retroactively designate St. John’s Episcopal Church, a mile-and-a-half down the road from Bard, as the sole polling location for District 5 in Red Hook for 2021. He wants them to reverse course.

“In short, we’re in the same place we were two years ago where the Board of Elections is insisting that polling take place off campus, even though both commissioners have not signed an agreement to that effect,” Becker says.

Becker says the county elections commissioners have not assigned polling places in Dutchess County despite a March 15 deadline to do so. In late April, according to Becker, who does not reside in District 5, voters in District 5 received a postcard notifying them that their polling site had moved from Bard College to St. John’s Episcopal Church. He voiced surprise at learning that the campus would not serve as a polling site going forward.

“I’ve only heard back from Commissioner Black, who’s indicated that she’s sympathetic to the polling site being on campus and confirming that she has not signed on to any agreement to designate a polling place in Dutchess County, let alone in District 5,” Becker says. “So who sent these postcards out is a mystery to us.”

Dutchess County Republican Democratic Elections Commissioner Hannah Black says she did not realize the cards mentioned the change.

“It is correct that I am sympathetic with the polling site being on campus, specifically at the main campus center,” says Black. “If not there, then the gym.”

Dutchess County Republican Elections Commissioner Erik Haight, in an emailed response, says, quote, “I can’t speak to Becker’s surprise but if his lawyer didn’t explain to him or he didn’t understand that last year’s litigation was settled out of court and was a one-time exception than I’m at a loss for someone who is allegedly educated.” End quote.

Becker contends an October 30 court order does not limit the polling site at Bard to that one time in November. Commissioner Black says Haight had proposed the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson as a polling site, a location Haight says he’d negotiated with Black’s predecessor. Black says the Fisher Center is not a viable option for a number of reasons, so her not agreeing to the arts center as a polling site meant the polling site defaulted back to the church. Bard’s Becker says the church is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.

“The Board of Elections  has refused to conduct an ADA access survey for the church even though they’re aware that the church is out of compliance with ADA and has been renovated, which requires them to do a new survey,” Becker says.

Haight says the church’s most recent ADA survey found it to be in compliance. Becker contends that survey was flawed. Again, Black:

“I have called for, a number of times now, for us to go and reevaluate which, do a survey on St. John’s Episcopal Church to see if it is ADA compliant or not,” Black says. “It’s my understanding that they have newly renovated, which makes it state mandatory for us to go and perform an assessment to see if they are ADA compliant. Now I do believe that they are still not ADA compliant.”

Becker also wrote to Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro.

“Marc Molinaro, to his great credit, has been a tremendous advocate of disability rights through his ‘Think Differently’ campaign. In this situation, we have a case where the polling site clearly violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ample evidence has been given to the Board of Elections and to the county executive. Even we have great illustrations on our website about how this violates ADA,” says Becker. “Unfortunately, my letter to County Executive Molinaro has gone unresponded to thus far. We believe that it’s his role as county executive to enforce the law and to demand not where the polling site should be, but that the Board of Elections conduct a new survey of the site, which we know will conclusively demonstrate that it violates the ADA.”

County Executive Molinaro:

“Bard College understands and knows that the county executive does not have the authority to influence decision-making at the Board of Elections,” says Molinaro. “In fact, they very much, as I agree, don’t want politicians dictating outcomes to elections officials.”

Molinaro says the county is addressing polling site ADA compliance.

“In order to accommodate what is a real concern regarding ADA compliance and access at all Dutchess County election sites, we secured funding in the 2021 budget to conduct a full ADA compliance analysis of all designated poll sites. That is proceeding,” Molinaro says. “Dutchess County, the county government, not the Board of Elections, is proceeding with a third party to conduct that analysis. When they are done, they will present to the county government, to the public and to the Board of Elections their findings. I trust and expect the Board of Elections will take that into consideration as they designate, re-designate or alter the poll site locations throughout Dutchess County.”

He says the analysis will be completed before the November elections.

Becker contends any effort to keep voting off the Bard campus amounts to an attempt at voter suppression, which is seen on a larger scale in states like Florida and Georgia.

“We fight so hard for this polling place because we believe that the issue is a microcosm of a national fight over the right to vote. In this case, it is young people who are being discriminated against, but we are fighting against the idea that individual election officials should not have the capacity to suppress people, to suppress voters, be it based on race, ethnicity or age,” Becker says. “This is the 50th anniversary of the 26th amendment and we believe it’s really worth fighting for young people’s right to vote where they live, work and study.”

Becker says the Bard College community comprises nearly 70 percent of the district’s eligible voting population.

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