The Fight to Vote at Bard
They fought a decade of disenfranchisement in the shadow of FDR’s legacy, the birthplace of modern democracy.
Near the birthplace of President FDR, and just minutes from the childhood home of Eleanor Roosevelt, students at Bard College have faced unjust barriers to voting for over a decade. Located in New York’s Dutchess County, Bard joined Vote Everywhere to invigorate and sustain student-led efforts to promote and protect the right to vote.
Students have a right to vote in their campus communities, however, as new residents in the area, they are susceptible to voting rights abuses. “Students at Bard had to resort to ligation 3 different times in order to protect their right to vote” says Campus Champion Erin Cannan, VP for Student Affairs.
“Over the years, actions taken by the Dutchess County Board of Elections have suppressed registration and turnout. These actions were rooted in the unconstitutional practice of targeting students on the basis of residency,” adds Dr. Jonathan Becker, VP of Academic Affairs.
During their combined 40-years at Bard, Becker and Cannan witnessed these challenges first-hand. Until the year 2000, students were systematically barred from registering to vote due to a supplemental questionnaire. The practice was promoted by former Elections Commissioner William Paroli Sr., a convicted felon.
Years later, on Election Day 2009, a local Judge prohibited students from voting by machine in a later overturned decision. That day, even an election lawyer was attacked by a partisan poll watcher for documenting student disenfranchisement at the polling place near campus.
More recently, students filed a class-action voting rights lawsuit against the current Commissioner Erik Haight. Just weeks before the 2012 Presidential Election, Haight rejected registrations that did not fit unusually specific and highly-impractical campus address requirements. In doing so, he ignored advisory opinions issued by the NYCLU and Brennan Center for Justice, and the NYS Board of Elections.
Jonian Rafti ‘15, a first-generation Ambassador, led voter registration efforts during his four undergraduate years. He considers the 2012 ordeal to be an eye-opening experience because applications were frivolously rejected; it was difficult identifying what information was supposedly incorrect.
These recurring issues underscored the need for a long-term voting rights project at Bard, and in 2014, the College joined Vote Everywhere.
“As first-time voters, students face unique obstacles when exercising their right to vote. Vote Everywhere provides a targeted solution to this problem by bringing together student leaders, university administrators, and organizational resources,” says Jonian, who now serves on both AGF and Bard CCE Alumni Committees.
Since 2014, the Bard Ambassadors have consistently registered over 60% of eligible voters in each year’s freshman class. “Our team consists of both first-year and Upper College students, so we have program sustainability. This long-term focus has allowed us to host voter registration drives for the student body annually,” says Ambassador Eva-Marie Quinones ’17. “My predecessors registered me to vote, and I registered some of our first-year team members. As long as we’re on campus, there’s a place for students to get involved with the political process.”
Eva-Marie considers AGF’s nonpartisan approach a critical aspect of the program. “Regardless of your political orientation, we’ll provide you with a forum to have your voice heard,” she says. “Our nonpartisan affiliation means that students feel comfortable speaking up, and we see high-quality discourse at our events primarily because of that freedom.”
To improve voting conditions for all, Jonian, Eva-Marie, and Ambassador Connor Boehme ‘17 launched a campaign to make the local polling place accessible to voters. Over a two-year period, the students presented a data-driven case for relocating the polling site, working methodically to make voting easier for generations of students to come.
“A polling place on Bard’s campus is about ensuring there are never unnecessary barriers blocking an American’s right to vote. People have the right to vote where they live, and they have a right to a safe and accessible voting location,” says Connor.
Having examined voting patterns, population density, accessibility, and election law, the Ambassadors showcased the irrefutable need for a polling place on Bard’s campus. Eva-Marie and Connor even testified before the democratically Red Hook Town Board. Ultimately, the community agreed with the students: 200 voters petitioned local officials, the NYCLU supported the cause, and Town Board voted to demand relocation.
Unfortunately, Commissioner Haight vetoed the proposal in May 2016. His co-worker, Commissioner Caviglia, felt the decision was a mistake. In a formal letter to Haight, Caviglia argued that the veto constituted “de facto disenfranchisement.”
According to the Ambassadors, the fight for equal access to the ballot box will continue.