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After Bard College legal victory for polling place on campus, Vassar College students will likely vote off-campus

Bard College campus, voting, college students vote, Dutchess County Board of Elections.
Courtesy of Bard College
Courtesy Bard College
Bard College located in Northeren Dutchess County wins the right to have a polling place on campus.

This election season has one clear winner in the Hudson Valley. After a 25-year legal fight — including two court victories — students at Bard College in Dutchess County have won the ability to easily access ballots on campus. But students at nearby Vassar College will still have to vote off campus this year, putting county board of elections officials at odds. 

Students at Bard College won the right to vote on campus after a judge ruled against the Dutchess County Board of Elections in 2021. As many as 1,100 students can vote at the Bertelsmann Campus Center in the midterm elections. This is where the requisite number of polling machines and staff will be in place.

Prior to the court ruling, Bard students had to find their own rides off campus to vote. That was difficult for many students without cars or those who needed a fully A-D-A compliant location to vote.

Bard’s work not only helped their students have easier access to vote, but the legal victory led to a new state law for all colleges with 300 or more students located in one election district to have the ability to vote on campus.

Some Dutchess County Board of Elections officials see the law as crystal clear; while others see the law as murky. For years, there have been claims that the Dutchess County Republican Board of Elections Chairman Erik Haight put up roadblocks for Bard and other colleges in the county to have easy access to the polls.

Jonathan Becker, Bard College executive vice president and vice president of student affairs, contends there is a long history of voter suppression. “Bard has participated in four different lawsuits, one federal and three state lawsuits all of which we've won, and which cost the county taxpayers the Dutchess County more than $120,000. The outcome or one of the outcomes of Bard’s involvement in this process has been that it contributed to the argument of a new state law, which allows college campuses with 300 or more registered students to have a polling place on campus," Becker said.

Bard College senior Huba Zaman is one of the college’s students who will soon vote on campus. “And I'm just super excited that Bard has made it that much easier for students to kind of go out and have their voices heard. And I think that's super important, especially with Bard being having a diverse kind of voice in the area," Zaman said.

Zaman remains steadfast about the need for easy access to vote. “I think everyone should exercise their right to vote regardless of their political leanings, regardless of their benefit, like backgrounds, because that's the right you have an answer, right, you should exercise," Zaman added.

Down the Hudson River at Vassar College, where WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau is located, the ability to vote is more complicated. The Dutchess County Board of Elections Commissioners can’t seem to agree on one aspect of the new state law.

Democratic Commissioner Hannah Black believes her Republican counterpart is intentionally ignoring the newly passed law, making Vassar students travel off-campus to vote. The strategy, she worries, is to run the clock out for this election, meaning fewer young voters are likely to vote.

Black is quick to correct a commonly-held belief that young college students mainly vote Democratic. ” As we see different registrations come in, they're registered and all sorts of parties and all different parties," Black said.

The Dutchess County Democratic Board of Elections Commissioner added: “I am very much on the side of wanting them to vote and wanting to be in compliance with New York state law, election law as it is.”

Dutchess County Republican Elections Commissioner Haight fired back: “It's disingenuous for her to suggest that I'm running the clock out when Never once have I said, No, you know, pound salt, you know, I haven't I haven't been disagreeable on this. And you know, if they want to turn a sense into some sort of political stunt, you know, that's on them, but it's disingenuous.”

Here’s what we know for sure. The new state law has two parts: first, the college must have 300 students on campus, which Vassar does. Second, the law reads: the polling place designated for such an election district shall be on such contiguous property or at a location approved by the college or university. Vassar’s sprawling 1,000-acre campus in Arlington, near Poughkeepsie, is currently located in three voting districts.

Commissioner Haight confirms Dutchess County’s voting practices still remain under careful scrutiny by state officials and watchdogs. “The Attorney General contacted us about, you know, the new law, which of course, we were already aware of, I explained to them the situation and I said, you know, we would be open to any solution that the attorneys at the attorney general office would could come up with, they haven't been able to," said Haight.

The good news for Vassar College students is that this should be cleared up next year, according to Haight. “Next year with the new legislative maps going into effect, I believe that Vassar campus becomes one legislative district instead of three. And that should enable us to be able to comply with the totality of the law, and put a poll site on campus," said Haight.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 8th. Early voting runs through November 6th.

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