A Decades-Long Battle: How Bard College Won An On-Campus Polling Site
After a long and hard-fought battle, Andrew Goodman Ambassadors at Bard College are victorious! The Dutchess County Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bard College’s right to an on-campus polling site.
The battle began as these battles often do: Bard College students had clear and documented difficulties voting at their allocated polling site, the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist. The church is situated on a windy country road two miles from campus in Barrytown, New York, an area with neither sidewalks nor public transportation. Since most students don’t have access to a car, the Election@Bard student group, which our Andrew Goodman Ambassadors lead, and the Bard Center for Civic Engagement have provided rides for students to the polls. Even with transportation secured, the church is tiny and has highly limited parking, resulting in consistently long lines outside along a dangerous road. What’s more, with an outdated wheelchair ramp and an incomplete Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Compliance Report, the church is not accessible in accordance with the ADA. Most recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the church’s tiny indoor space made it impossible for voters to adhere to social distancing protocol.
With all of these barriers, the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist has never served as a particularly safe nor accessible polling site for anyone in District 5, students or not. Because the student population faces the unique challenge of being new to voting, and makes up a staggering 68% of District 5’s electorate—a highly significant margin in any election—the case for Bard student voters to have an on-campus polling site was clear.
However, even with a unanimous town council resolution in support of relocating the polling site, and endorsements from organizations like the New York Civil Liberties Union, the process was not that simple. The decision ultimately lay in the hands of the Dutchess County Board of Elections, requiring unanimous agreement between the two Election Commissioners on the Board. Commissioner Haight ultimately used his veto power over the resolution. In fact, he blocked the on-campus polling site multiple times.
This case was not the first iteration of this battle for Bard College. They first started seriously tracking their students’ voting access and challenging barriers in 1999 in a joint lawsuit with Vassar College that claimed there were illegal impediments to student voter registration. Since then, they have experienced a series of different versions of the same problem: rejections of student voter registration forms, voter intimidation towards students at the polls in town, and vetoes of an on-campus polling site.
Speaking to the importance of Bard’s long term commitment to this battle, Andrew Goodman Campus Co-Champion Sarah deVeer says, “As a private college working for the public good, we constantly are pushing for our students to think with us on how to leverage our resources (including voter protection resources) for the community. And our students are doing exactly that: They are modeling what it means to build an inclusive voting environment.”
Several years ago, Bard students and staff made their first attempt at changing the District 5 polling site by submitting formal requests directly to the Dutchess County Board of Elections. Both times, the request was denied. The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was the COVID-19 pandemic. What had primarily been an issue of accessibility also became an urgent health risk for every voter in the District, all during what was sure to be one of the most important elections of our lives.
Recognizing this urgency, on September 4, 2020, Bard College worked with The Andrew Goodman Foundation to file a lawsuit against the Dutchess County Board of Elections for violating students’ voting rights. The plaintiffs in the case were student group Election@Bard, Bard student and Andrew Goodman Ambassador Sadia Saba, Vice President for Student Engagement and Andrew Goodman Campus Co-Champion Erin Cannan, and Bard College President Leon Botstein. Knowing this would be a long-fought battle, Ambassadors took the lead on organizing their campus community in support of the litigation, collecting testimonies from student voters, and demonstrating unwavering campus momentum leading into the 2020 Election. Our Ambassadors testified at hearings for the case, spoke at town hall meetings, and wrote op-eds for local Dutchess County newspapers. Just weeks before Election Day, they were finally granted an on-campus polling site for the first time, and Ambassadors immediately got to work to make it accessible, friendly to town residents, and well-run.
Despite the state Supreme Court’s positive ruling in 2020 that allowed the on-campus polling site, the case has continued to face a constant stream of appeals from Commissioner Haight in an attempt to see it dismissed and the polling site designation returned to the church. The excitement continues, most recently with another win for Bard as the New York Appellate Division denied Commissioner Haight’s latest appeal and retained the campus polling site.
As we see similar voter suppression tactics and laws popping up across the country, this is a battle that many Andrew Goodman Campuses are taking up. Thanks to the relentless work of Bard College students and staff to establish their on-campus polling site, we have a strong playbook to use in the future.
Andrew Goodman Ambassador Sarah Seager says that “allowing voters a safe and accessible space to vote, which is what the Bard campus polling site provides, is expected of all polling sites. As a Bard community we are excited to provide that space for voices to be heard as people practice their civic duty of voting. I, along with the Election@Bard team, am excited to see what the future of Dutchess County looks like when the voices of students are heard.”
It’s an exciting future indeed. Students voted at a record 66% in 2020, according to the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education’s Democracy Counts 2020 Report. For The Andrew Goodman Foundation, Bard College, and a rapidly growing percentage of the country, the increasing power of the youth vote is a dream come true and a much needed source of hope.
About the Author
Caroline Smith is the Senior Program Manager: Partnership Strategist at The Andrew Goodman Foundation.