How Dutchess County Enables Student Voter Suppression and Ableism

The Church of St. John the Evangelist lies in Red Hook, New York, only a four minute car ride from the Bard College Annandale campus. It sits atop a small hill at the end of a dark, winding and unlit path named River Road. This was the College’s assigned polling station. Comprising 700 square feet, the church had been declared an appropriate, safe, and accessible voting location for decades. Despite the Dutchess County Board of Elections’ (BOE) insistence, this is far from the case. One cannot feasibly walk to this church. There is no local transportation connecting students, or other residents, to this road. It is inaccessible to disabled communities, lacking a ramp, restroom, and parking lot that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act of 1990. Although construction has begun to remedy the bathroom compliance, and it was slated for completion by the election, the Church was cutting it too close.

Church officials themselves have acknowledged its generally hazardous position as a polling site, citing in the lawsuit it is far too small to accommodate socially distanced voting this election. Regardless of newfound COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines, the Church is ill equipped to serve as a polling location for the entire local community. Though 70% of the Church’s voters are residents of Bard College’s campus, the Church also serves as a precarious polling site for the rest of the county.

Simply put, the Church is not a safe or accessible polling site for students and the disabled community. For the BOE to continue to affirm this inaccessible location as an appropriate polling site is to blatantly affirm voter suppression. Accessible voting locations are the first step to ensure accessible voting for anyone in a community. To render a voting site explicitly inaccessible to as large a group of actively voting individuals as currently exists at Bard College and surrounding districts is to willfully partake in voter suppression. 

Yet, as we approach arguably the most tumultuous and controversial election in recent decades, voter suppression across the country is spiking. Voter intimidation persists, with a 100 car Trump caravan raging through Red Hook on October 24th, flags waving and horns honking. Caravans were especially targeting early voting sites across Dutchess County.  In the last weeks alone, the California Republican party has admitted to willfully placing misleading mail-in ballot collection boxes primarily in conservative districts of a predominantly Democratic state. This was in an effort to further garner votes in their favor. Voters face up to 10 hour waits in line to vote in Dekalb County, Georgia, as well as in Ohio and Virginia. Florida’s voter registration website crashed hours shy of the confirmation deadline to register to vote. The federal judge has denied requests to re-register what would have been thousands of additional voters

The suppression continues– President Trump has all but waged war against mail-in ballots and post offices in an effort to silence the people. He has rendered our mail a partisan issue, using it as a gateway to deny Democrats their requested 25 billion dollar mail-in ballot budget. The Democratic party’s wish to safeguard the election with the use of mail-in ballots has been all but squashed and branded as “left wing,” ill planning by Trump. Since Louis DeJoy was named Postmaster General in August, the country has seen a significant spike in the  delay of first class mail delivery. Some studies even suggest that this has been occurring in key swing states, like Ohio. “Microcosms of this issue go on across the country, in different forms. We are seeing them up close,” Executive Vice President and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jonathon Becker said.

In refusing to fund the United States Postal Service (USPS), President Trump is making it nearly impossible for plenty of elderly, ill, and/or disabled people to partake in their civic right, let alone receive necessary funds and medication in a time of such precarity. Trump has made it clear his intentions are political and partisan censorship. The country’s election is now severely dependent upon a properly functioning USPS to distribute and deliver mail in ballots in a timely manner.

There has never been a more important time in the history of this nation to vote. We stand to re-inherit a racist, sexist and xenophobic individual to call president and commander in chief. While we learn to navigate the uncertainty of our lives, there lies a certainty in the constitutional right to make your voice heard, and to have a say in your own future. 

Voting is not necessarily the answer to all of our problems. But, it is one of the only courses of action left that allows us a sliver of agency in determining the circumstances of the coming four years. (Besides protest, which is similarly protected under the First Amendment– not that Supreme Court Nominee Amy Coney Barett was able to recall that in her latest confirmation hearing.)

More often than not, the act of voting itself has been a site of violence and discrimination against BIPOC communities. Placement of polling stations has been discriminatory against minority groups, with 15% of African Americans and 14% of Hispanics noting difficulty in locating an accessible voting site. These sites are stretched thin polling employees wise. Underfunded election offices struggle to disseminate mail-in ballots on time. African American citizens are especially vulnerable to voting registration rules and regulations. The threat of violence and microaggressions consistently looms too close for black students and individuals on and off the Bard campus. As voiced on the Black at Bard instagram page, violent slurs and discrimination remain daily issues for BIPOC students. The concern remains that allowing the public onto campus to vote will pose as a gateway to heightened intimidation of and violence against Black student voters. Election@Bard has released a statement ensuring marginalized communities on campus will be as protected as possible from public intimidation and interaction. As much as we as a nation continue to advocate for voting, in person or remotely, we must be aware of the structurally racist practices that still taint this duty and this campus.

Locally, the Bard College community is experiencing another dimension of voter discrimination. Historically, Dutchess County has been home to implicit voter suppression of particular demographics, most importantly students: “Many localities and states target young voters with restrictive election laws, regulations, and practices.”  Students form a significant chunk of the County’s demographic, with several institutions, like Vassar and Marist College just 40 minutes away from Bard. Speaking with Jonathon Becker, I learned more about the current lawsuit the College is engaged in against the BOE. 

The College has been involved in what is now an almost two decade long struggle against the local BOE and its commissioners. It has come to a head with this formal lawsuit, filed by Bard College and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, with the help of non-partisan student initiative Election@Bard. The current commissioners of Dutchess County’s BOE are Erik J. Haight (R) and Elizbeth Soto (D). For any polling location to be moved or altered, both commissioners have to be in agreement. At the current moment, Commissioner Soto is supportive of the College’s desires for release, whereas Commissioner Haight poses a perpetual obstacle to much needed change.

In an effort to safely ensure voting accessibility to students on campus for this vital election, Becker explained that the institution demanded “immediate release of the polling site,” traditionally located at the Church of St. John’s the Evangelist, to the campus’ 2200 square feet sized Multipurpose Room. Becker remained hopeful throughout the course of the lawsuit that the judge reviewing the case would grant the College immediate release, and eventual permanent release of the polling site to Bard’s campus. 

However, news broke of Judge Maria Roses’s denial of the institution’s request on the afternoon of October 14th. Rose argued there would be insufficient time to inform Dutchess County voters of a location change, while stating that this complaint should have been filed prior to the March 13 deadline to decide on a polling location. Yet, two days after the decision was made, the commissioners approved the moving of two polling sites in Red Hook from the Town Hall, Becker detailed in an interview with WAMC. In a statement to the student body, it was revealed that the rejection of the College’s request was in large part due to Commissioner Haight’s hesitations: 

By the next day, the BOE announced the relocation of two polling locations for safety reasons, which has been confirmed by the Red Hook Town Supervisor. (See Ex. A to this Affirmation.) The brazen and contradictory actions of the BOE and Commissioner Haight merit that the Court reconsider its decision… At the same time Commissioner Haight represented to this Court that time did not permit relocating a polling location, plans were underway to relocate other polling stations.

Haight stated the “role of the law” prevailed. A success story indeed, to use the law to perpetuate the endangerment of hundreds of students and community members attempting to practice their right to franchisement. Bard students and other community members should not take it solely upon themselves to practice safe voting. The Dutchess County Department of Health went so far as to release an email supporting the Commissioners’ claim that “students should not mingle with voters.” 

Becker said: “The question remains of where they will mingle.” Recent research by Dr. Felicia Keesing, an ecologist and educator at the College, found that the Church is 4x more likely to generate a COVID-19 transmission spike than an on campus site. The situation was never before as clear as it was in the aftermath of the results: through and through, this is voter suppression.

The most recent development, however, was that of success, as Judge Maria Rose ruled in favor of releasing the polling site to the Bertelsmann Campus Center. She noted that previous claims of too little time to notify the community of the District 5 polling site change were “untrue,” as suggested by Commissioner Haight. Fortunately, the denial of this latest request was but another hiccup in the larger, ongoing struggle to diminish student and other voter suppression in the Hudson Valley. The student body’s sheer determination is what has pushed the College to this momentous achievement. 

Alongside pre-existing early voting and absentee ballot planning, the College released their comprehensive plans on in-person voting to the student body. Commissioner Haight’s feeble attempt to railroad the appeal by claiming that “Bard’s plan is quite obvious. Get the court to move the poll site on campus and then close it to the public under the guise of the pandemic so only students can vote…’” was as untrue as the rest of his claims have been. The College and President Botsetin have repeatedly affirmed civic duty is an essential activity that overrides current visitor restrictions. These empty threats and arguments made primarily by Commissioner Haight did not stop students and faculty from relentlessly fighting for our safe franchisement. 

But, for far too long now, Commissioner Haight has not taken previous requests and demands seriously. Too many times, the youth voice has been branded illegitimate: too opinionated, too liberal, simply not deserving or seasoned enough for a community vote. Other colleges in the county have dealt with similar instances of restrictive bureaucracies. Back in 2018, Vassar College similarly filed a lawsuit against Republican Commissioner Haight. They too had their request for release of a polling site to campus denied. Becker explained the general hesitancy that remains towards granting the College a polling site of their own to be related to the passing of the Twenty Sixth Amendment in 1971. This amendment prohibited denying one the right to vote on the basis of their age. 

Students are a vital part of the Dutchess County community. We have a legal say in determining our judges, sheriffs, and state officials, all of whom have direct impact over our lives on and off campus. Our vote counts, whether for president or Red Hook Town Board members. Prior to COVID-19, the Church was an unstable location for anyone to vote at. What consideration is afforded to the disabled community? The BOE states the site is ADA compliant, invoking a fraudulent claim. The continued disregard for the disabled shines bright through Commissioner Haight’s actions. Haight has done near nothing to protect this community. 

There is no handicapped parking, appropriate hand railing, disabled bathroom, or ADA compliant ramp at the entrance, despite stated ADA compliance by the Board. Plenty of other polling locations across the county share a similar fate. Albeit that churches and other religious institutions are exempt from being in accordance with ADA regulations, as polling sites, they are legally obligated to set up temporary accommodations. Why not simply agree to moving the polling location to a 24/7 ADA compliant and accessible site?

Ironically enough, this lawsuit and its troubles come on the heels of several seminal anniversaries: the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 26th amendment, which bars voting discrimination on the basis of age; the 30th anniversary of the ADA, and 18th anniversary of the “Help America Vote” Act. But, not much has seemed to change in terms of safety and accessibility. Disabled communities in particular continue to have to push for visibility and rights.

Local disabled community leaders and activists, like Katy Caroll of Caring Majority Rising, Keith Gurgui, and Andrew Thompson, are living proof of the disenfranchisement still experienced. There remain very present and very legitimate community accessibility needs. At many of these polling sites, hearing and visually impaired individuals lose the privacy necessary to cast their ballot– where is the human dignity? 

Year after year, the College, its students and its faculty, in partnership with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, have proved their dedication. This lawsuit, at its core, was about reversing student disenfranchisement. It was not a partisan act of revenge against Republican Commissioner Haight. They simply did not stop pushing until there was a safe way for students and direct community members of all kinds to vote. Now, there is.

This victory is not the end; it only marks the beginning of a new fight for more fair enfranchisement policy. Even now, voter intimidation and the potential for violence and censorship is an active threat to our students of color in particular. In our newfound opportunity and access, we have a duty to keep supporting the communities that have yet to be fully recognized by the powers that be. 

Begin by signing this petition that Katy Caroll is spearheading. It is only right to stand in solidarity with those who stood with us. The fight is far from over, and more change is needed. As we have learned, recognition and change can only come about through collective, persistent action and will. Bard College and supporting organizations will continue to push through the hurdles, for an even better future for student and disabled voting rights. We stand by those marginalized communities. We will not stop.

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