Bard, Alleging Voter Suppression, Sues Again To Locate Polling Site On-Campus


Bard College President Leon Botstein prepares to vote on Election Day on Nov. 3, 2020 (photo by Emily Sachar).

The ongoing struggle to locate a permanent polling spot on the Bard College campus has been reignited yet again as the college has filed a voter suppression lawsuit against the Dutchess County Board of Elections. The college seeks to locate a permanent polling station at the Bertelsmann Campus Center, where voting was offered in last November’s general election. 

The lawsuit, filed in the Supreme Court of the State of New York on July 15th, asks the Court to designate the Campus Center as the primary polling location in District 5 or add the site as an alternative polling location to the District’s long-standing polling station at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Barrytown. Bard’s lawyers argue that this is necessary because, by keeping the primary polling location at St. John’s, the Board of Elections (BOE) is violating the State Constitution, State election laws, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“The BOE is endangering all voters, especially with Covid, and disenfranchising people with disabilities,” said Jonathan Becker, Bard’s Executive Vice President. 

Students from the College’s voting-rights initiative, Election@Bard, joined Bard president Leon Botstein as petitioners in the lawsuit, marking the latest legal maneuver in a 20-year fight waged by the liberal arts college to expand access to voting for the students and those with disabilities in the Town Ward’s 5th District. Bard has retained Yael Bromberg of Bromberg Law LLC and Michael Donofrio of Stris & Maher LLP as counsel.

“This lawsuit will hopefully bring voting rights for students and new opportunities for the Dutchess County community,” said Sarina Culaj, a rising junior at Bard and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. 

But there is one elected official determined to stop plans for the college polling site. Erik Haight, who is named in the lawsuit, serves as the Republican elections commissioner on the BOE, the body tasked with designating polling locations. Twice this spring, he has denied timely requests to make the College a polling location. Haight did not respond to requests for comment today.

Haight stands alone in his opposition. Hannah Black, Haight’s Democratic counterpart on the Board, disagrees, siding with the Town of Red Hook Board of Supervisors, which has unanimously endorsed moving the polling site to the college. Still, Haight insists St. John’s is more suitable. With no agreement in sight, it’s up to a judge to designate a polling location for upcoming elections. 

At the center of the lawsuit is St. John’s Episcopal Church. Bard’s lawyers allege that in every regard, the church is an “inadequate” and unlawful place to make voters cast ballots. 

Among its shortcomings, the church, which sits atop a hill along a twisting street without sidewalks, is not compliant with the ADA because there are no handicap-accessible restrooms and the wheelchair ramp lacks an arm rail. In addition,  the site is not along any public transit routes, all violations of State election laws, Bard contends. 

In an interesting twist, the church’s leaders agree that the building is not a suitable polling place. Mary Grace Williams, a vicar at St. John’s, penned a letter to the BOE last September imploring the Board to find a more suitable polling location. Williams explains that at just 750 square feet, the church is too cramped to allow for proper social distancing as the pandemic continues. The letter is the first exhibit presented by Bard in the lawsuit.

As concerns about the Church’s inaccessibility mounted in March, Democratic BOE commissioner Hannah Black emailed Haight, to set up a time to review the church’s accessibility for the disabled. Haight replied within minutes, “Says who?” Bard’s lawyers have put a microscope to this email exchange in an effort to cast Haight as reckless and derelict in his responsibility as a public official. 

“He’s saying he doesn’t care about the law, or disabled people, and it’s reprehensible,” fumed Becker. 

There is much to recommend the 2,200 square-foot Bertelsmann Campus Center as an alternative, Bard contends. Arguments for its designation as a polling site have been made in halls of courtrooms for nearly two decades. The Center is ADA-compliant, located along the Dutchess County Loop Bus Loop C route, has handicap parking, bathroom access, and space for social distancing.

Bard’s advocates also point out that the college is closer to most voters than the church: 670 (65%) of the 1,035 registered voters in the election district have addresses on Bard’s campus, while only 365 (35%) live outside the college grounds. Bard claims nearly 85% of its students are registered to vote. 

The Center was designated as an additional polling location to St. John’s as a result of a similar lawsuit in 2020, in which  Dutchess County Supreme Court Justice Maria Rosa approved having two polling spots for the November general election.

Rosa initially rejected Bard’s petition in favor of Haight’s contention that switching a polling location months before the election would sow confusion among voters. But after an appeal from Bard, along with the discovery that Haight had misled the Court when he said it was too late to switch voting sites, the Judge reversed her decision. The two-site solution was approved by Judge Rosa after Haight appealed to the New York Appellate Court just days before the November 2020 election. Rosa will preside over the current lawsuit, as well. 

As a result, many voters, including Botstein, cast their ballots without a hitch at the Campus Center in last November’s presidential election. The lawsuit states that poll workers from both parties praised the college as a “model host” on Election Day. 

Haight contests this, casting aspersions on the integrity of Bard’s polling operation. At a public meeting in February, he claimed to have received “countless complaints from voters.” Haight suggested the College’s security checkpoint was intimidating to voters and insisted he witnessed multiple campaign signs within 100 feet of the voting area. In response, Bard filed a FOIL request seeking any records of complaints from voters and poll workers. None turned up. One sign supporting a political candidate was discovered by campus security and promptly removed before ballots were cast. 

Then in April, having missed the March 15th deadline to designate a primary polling site, the BOE assumed that St. John’s would once again serve its historic role as the District 5 polling location, by default. Bard disagrees. The lawsuit argues that in failing to meet this deadline, the Board failed to perform its duty and violated New York Civil Practice Law and Rules. 

Acting on the assumption that St. John’s would remain the primary polling site, the Board sent out yellow postcards to all voters in the district in April. The cards read, “YOUR POLLING PLACE HAS BEEN CHANGED. YOU NOW VOTE AT: St. John’s Episcopal Church…” Confusingly, the cards also included a line saying “you may continue to vote at the accessible polling place on this card.” Bard’s lawsuit claims the cards are “misleading.” 

To his critics, including Becker, Haight has accommodated a decades-long Republican effort to curtail access to student voting in Dutchess County. Indeed, this is not the first time he has sought to block a polling site near students. In 2018, Haight denied a similar petition by Vassar College to move a Poughkeepsie polling location on-campus. He was sued but maintains the decision was made to protect older voters, whom he says could be discouraged to vote on a college campus. 

For some, moves to diminish youth voting is personal. “As a Bard student, I feel the direct impact of youth voter suppression through the actions that Commissioner Haight has taken to block the addition of a polling place on campus,” says Culaj. 

After a generation of student advocacy, Bard is asking the Court to settle this matter for good. 

 

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