Lack of on-campus polling site violates new law, highlights voting inequities

Karen Mogami/The Miscellany News.

Nearly seven months have passed since New York Election Law § 4-104 mandated the designation of a polling place on or near every college campus housing 300 or more registrants. While the deadline for this designation was Aug. 1, 2022, with midterm elections less than a week away, Vassar, with 800 registered local voters, has yet to form an official polling location on campus. 

A number of on-campus student organizations have brought this issue to the attention of the county’s Board of Elections (BOE), but according to a letter sent to the County by the Dutchess Student Voting Coalition, in conjunction with Democracy Matters, League of Women Voters and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, they have received little to no response from the BOE. 

According to Wesley Dixon, Special Assistant to the President and Secretary of the Board of Trustees, the President’s Office has seen both the press release and the letter sent to the county. “The College supports and is excited about the fact that local residents and Vassar community members are exercising their voices to advocate for a polling site on Vassar’s campus,” he said in written correspondence. 

He added that the College has made its stance clear to both Election Commissioners in Dutchess County, Hannah Black (Democrat) and Erik Haight (Republican). “Vassar would like to have a polling site on campus and is ready and eager to work with our elected officials to designate a location that is accessible and suitable to all,” he explained. “We were initially made aware of this law when it passed in April, and again when further guidance was shared in August. The process for designating a polling location now is similar to what it has been in the past: both the Republican and Democratic Elections Commissioners must agree on designated polling locations in the County,” he continued. 

Hopefully, the future will allow for more cooperation. Students like Felicity Rakochy ’23 have voted on campus since the pandemic began, but it is the first time she has heard about the new law. She hopes it will encourage voting for all students. She said in a written correspondence, “I think that having a poll site on campus will encourage far more students to vote as it will be easier to access than having to go off campus. A lot of students (including myself) don’t have a car so going off-campus can be difficult to organize.”

A new on-campus polling site would aim to mitigate student-voter suppression, which is exacerbated by Vassar’s three election districts that cut through the campus. The letter to the County endorses BOE Commissioner Hannah Black’s proposal, which offers a central polling site at Vassar that would have provided voting access for all three election districts on campus for the midterms on Tuesday, Nov. 8. However, Dixon said, “Changes in the next month are unlikely; we are optimistic that the new Election Law will be fully implemented in the next year.”

Treasurer of Democracy Matters Sara Lawler ’23 agrees that changes are unlikely to affect this year’s election. She continued, “The timeline depends largely on how the Dutchess County Board of Elections responds to the letter that the coalition recently sent. My personal hopes are that Vassar has a polling location by next November for local elections, and certainly by the next presidential election in 2024.”

Rakochy added, “I have voted as a Vassar student before but it was during the height of the pandemic when I was at home so I used an absentee ballot. I think on-campus voting will be a lot easier if the law is implemented.”

According to Dixon, “Vassar’s separation into different districts and wards means that our students do not all vote at the same location. Students must make sure they know where their specific polling location is based on their on-campus address and/or place of residence. Vassar Votes and others on campus help to educate students on these issues as well as provide them with transportation in order to vote or drop off an absentee or early voting ballot.” 

In exchange, the College is working with the Office of Community Engaged Learning (OCEL) and Vassar Votes to get students registered and to educate them on the location of their designated polling site, according to Dixon. Additionally, the College is providing shuttles for Dutchess County early and day-of voting

But Lawler brings up that not having a polling site on campus fundamentally decreases access to voting. “As it stands, Vassar is divided into three districts with two polling locations, one of which is not walking distance from campus, creating a barrier to access from voting for those who are required to vote at that site and do not have a car,” she said in a written statement. 

All early-voting will occur at the same polling location, which will provide shuttle services. For same-day voting, one location will require a shuttle to be provided for registered voters living in Noyes, Ferry, Cushing and the Terrace Apartments. However, registered voters living in Josselyn, Jewett, Davison, Raymond, Lathrop, Strong, Main or Southern Commons will have to walk about 15 minutes off campus or request a ride.

Dixon said, “We are proud of their efforts to help educate students and set them on the path of becoming engaged global citizens.” In addition to OCEL and Vassar Votes, Dixon noted that the President’s Office has been in touch with a variety of county officials, including the BOE and Election Commissioners. 

Rakochy wrote in a correspondence, “I am voting this year and I’ll be taking the Vassar shuttle to the polls. I won’t be on campus after this year but I am excited for future students to use the on-campus site!”

Dixon encouraged all students who are eligible to vote, and to fight whatever difficulties may arise. He wrote, “We are committed to working with campus and community partners to ensure that civic engagement is encouraged and supported in all ways on campus, in Poughkeepsie, and throughout the country. Please vote!”

Additional reporting by Nina Ajemian.

 

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