A New York state Supreme Court judge allowed Bard College to set up a polling site on Election Day after a long legal battle. So, how did it turn out? Here’s an update on a story we’ve been following since Bard and other petitioners sued to move the polling site on campus.
After weeks of legal wrangling, the judge issued an order October 30 based on agreement between the parties that the Red Hook District 5 polling site would have two locations — its original site at St. John’s Episcopal Church and a new setup on the campus of Bard College, about a mile-and-a- half away. Initially, the judge sided with the Dutchess County Board of Elections, specifically, the rationale of Republican Election Commissioner Erik Haight, who said it would be unfair to voters to move a polling site so close to Election Day. Bard appealed, as two Red Hook polling sites were moved after the judge on October 13 denied a petition from Bard College to relocate the polling site from the church to its Annandale-on-Hudson campus. Jonathan Becker is Bard’s Executive Vice President and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He describes Election Day voting on campus.
“So first, it went really well," says Becker. "We had 20 people lined up to vote at 6 in the morning. It was particularly gratifying at around 9 a.m. when Bard President Leon Botstein and senior Sadia Saba, who are both plaintiffs in the lawsuit, came and voted together. To see that happen was really heartwarming.”
Throughout the legal battle, Bard contended that its college community comprises the majority of the district’s eligible voting population at nearly 70 percent. Becker says the majority of voters on campus Election Day were students, faculty and staff at the college, though a few did come from outside. Becker estimates that about 250 voters used the campus polling site. Commissioner Haight did not respond to a request for comment in time for this broadcast. Previously, he has said he will always protect the needs of all the voters. The initial 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 violates students’ voting rights. It also claims that the District 5 polling site at the church is not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, is too small for social distancing and is generally unsafe, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Bard has not reported any cases of COVID-19.
“The only difficulty we had on Election Day was that, at the behest of Commissioner Haight, a deputy sheriff was sent to campus to question the process of admitting people to the poll site,” Becker says.
He says Bard asked poll workers to answer questions that were a part of state guidance on elections. He claims the county did not ask for safety plans.
“People who came into the campus center to vote were asked to indicate if they had COVID or had been exposed to COVID, and, if they indicated that was the case, they were going to follow a protocol in which they would have kept their place in line passed through in a more socially-distanced manner,” Becker says. “The Board of Elections insisted that this was, bizarrely, an attempt at voter suppression and sent the deputy sheriff to campus to speak to the folks at the polling location, including me.”
The polling site on campus was allowed for that day only.
“We’re committed to continue to represent the needs of our students, faculty and staff and the rights of voters in District 5,” says Becker. “We continue to believe that the college is a safer and better place to vote. It’s handicap accessible, and we will continue to press our case to ensure that voters can vote in the best place possible.”
Becker, who also is director of the Center for Civic Engagement and an associate professor of political studies at Bard College, wrote an op-ed with Democratic Queens state Assemblywoman Nily Rozic in the Albany "Times Union" November 3.
“We’re going to seek a legislative solution, which is, we believe that the state should encourage polling stations on college campuses where there are large clusters of voters,” says Becker. “We think that’s the right thing to do; we think it’s an educational thing to do, and I’m hoping that there will be a legislative solution so that we don’t have to deal with the capriciousness of individual election commissioners as we’ve had to deal with in Dutchess County for a couple decades.”
He says that on the 50th anniversary of the 26th Amendment to lower the voting age to 18, it is incumbent upon him and his colleagues as educators to preserve that right.