Days after a judge reversed herself and ordered a polling location for the 2020 General Election to be set up on the Bard College campus, the Dutchess County Board of Elections has made a last-ditch appeal to maintain the polling place at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where it’s been for years.
Oral argument before the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court was heard this morning.
Dutchess County Board of Elections (BOE) Commissioner Erik Haight, a Republican, argues in his appeal that a request for a polling venue change should have been made last March 2020, when the BOE was confirming polling spots. And he argues that the church, which is on River Road in Barrytown, is both large and convenient enough for the Bard community. The brief also quotes Dr. Anil Vaidan, Commissioner of Behavioral and Community Health for Dutchess County, saying that a college campus is more dangerous for Covid transmission than a smaller community church.
“It was a manifest abuse of discretion to order a polling place changed 11 to 13 days before the date of a scheduled election,” attorney David Jenson argued for the BOE.
But attorneys for Bard vehemently disagreed this morning, arguing that Haight’s actions are a bold-faced attempt at voter suppression. There is plenty of time to move the 5th District polling location from its church location to the Bertelsmann Center on the campus, Bard’s attorneys argue. And doing so is in the best interest of voter and poll worker safety, during the Covid pandemic, as the church is 500 square feet versus the Bertelsmann Center’s 1,500 square feet. Bard also has argued that the church is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“Students’ lack of equal access to the ballot, including the inability to safely get to a polling place…is not a mere argument of inconvenience,” attorney Michael Volpe argued for Bard. “It is evidence of voter suppression – especially when an alternative exists.” Bard’s suit is presented on behalf of college president Leon Botstein, the Andrew Goodman Foundation, and Election@Bard, a student organization, as well as several individual students.
State Supreme Court Judge Maria Rosa, reversing herself last week, said she had been told by Haight that there was not enough time to move the poll.
The issue has become entirely political. Election Commissioner Elizabeth J. Soto, a Democrat, supports Bard’s request, as does the unanimous Town of Red Hook Board, Botstein, and Bard Science Professor Felicia Keesing, an expert on the transmission of COVID-19. The church itself, in a Sept. 15 letter, also noted that it cannot maintain a Covid-safe environment for poll workers or voters. “Simply put, our space is too small to support social distancing during the voting process,” the letter said.
The sole opponent, and thus the only reason for this lawsuit, is Haight.
Of the 1,035 registered voters in the election district, 670 (65%) have addresses on Bard’s campus, while 365 (35%) live elsewhere.
The case does not impact early voting, which has been underway since last Saturday, October 24 at five locations in Dutchess County. A decision on the appeal is expected within days.
1 and 2) Bard students courtesy of Election@Bard, a project of Bard Center for Civic Engagement.
3) Erik Haight, Republican BOE Commissioner, courtesy of the Dutchess County Board of Elections.