Community wins fight to earn on-campus poll site

Image courtesy of Karl Rabe at Vassar College.

Vassar earned a single polling location on-campus just 24 hours before Election Day to help increase youth voter turnout after weeks of litigation and uncertainty. The polling site will remain for all future elections, so long as Vassar maintains a minimum of 300 registered voters living on campus. Currently, Vassar has roughly 1,100 voters currently registered, according to The Poughkeepsie Journal

The League of Women Voters of the Mid-Hudson Region, with Professor of Political Science Taneisha Means and Magdalena Sharff ’26 as plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit against the Dutchess County Board of Elections (BOE), specifically Republican Election Commissioner Erik Haight and Democratic Election Commissioner Hannah Black for failing to abide by New York Election Law § 4-104, which mandated the selection of a designated poll site on all college campuses housing more than 300 registered voters. The lawsuit came after the League received little to no response from the Dutchess Election Commissioners, according to Jennifer Clark, Vice President of the League of Women Voters of the Mid-Hudson Region.

However, even before the League filed a lawsuit, there had been multiple attempts to reach the BOE, including 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. According to Clark, “We wanted to bring this lawsuit, but we also wanted to have students involved. And faculty, because it directly impacts y’all as well. So we got Magdalena Sharff. She offered to be a plaintiff as well as Professor Taneisha Means. And so we started moving forward, and we won the hearing.” 

Vassar’s administration has also expressed interest in choosing an official designated polling location on campus for all registered voters. According to a written correspondence with Wesley Dixon, Special Assistant to the President and Secretary of the Board of Trustees, the College expressed excitement for a designated polling location weeks ago, and even had recommended possible locations, as stated in the lawsuit. Dixon wrote, “The College began planning for the polling site as soon as the ruling was made last week, and we actually met with Board of Elections members (Commissioner Hannah Black and a representative for Eric Haight) in the Aula to go over the various needs, the afternoon of Friday, November 4.”

After winning the hearing, however, there came pushback from Haight and his attorney. In court on Thursday, less than a week until Election Day, Haight’s attorney objected on multiple grounds in an attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, according to Clark. “So ultimately, the Court denied his motion to dismiss,” she said. Friday, at 4:55 p.m., Clark said Haight filed a notice of appeal. 

“Initially, we were very concerned that this meant there would be no poll site, because it was our understanding it would take more than a day to set it up. And the court wasn’t going to hear anything before Monday,” Clark said. “So Monday rolls around, and the trial court says, ‘My order was clear. This is an additional site. Nobody brought up closing other sites.’” 

Clark added, “But just there was this looming behind [Haight] that they could face contempt for not proceeding. And all of a sudden they said, ‘Oh, we can do this in a day. Let’s get it set up.’ And so we have voting on campus.”

Treasurer of Democracy Matters Sara Lawler ’23 has been helping the student organization work with various lawyers for the last few weeks. “It’s been a back and forth and we truly didn’t know that the poll site would be set up until the last minute,” Lawler commented.

According to Clark, New York’s new Election Law comes as a result of similar litigation between Bard College and Commissioner Haight. As of 2020, Red Hook District’s polling site had been moved to Bard’s campus, but according to Bard’s website, Haight had designated a polling site that was not ADA compliant before a second lawsuit had moved it. 

Clark said, “The idea is, I don’t know if those same people would have voted if they had to go off campus. You can’t squeeze that in between classes the same way you can just stop by right there as you walk from one building to another. I’m confident that it did increase turnout.” 

The issue of college students having their voice and vote suppressed is nationwide, according to Clark. She said, “For example, Vassar College is split into three different districts. You have to go off-campus. And it’s just basically a way to make it so the student voice doesn’t count. There is no student voice because you’re just split up and it’s hard.” The recent New York Election Law will be implemented in two stages. The first phase is designating a polling location. Clark said, “The second portion of the law is that when they redistrict next year, Vassar campus will have to all be in one district. So that way students will have a voting bloc, and it will amplify your voices.”

While official numbers are yet to be announced, Dixon estimated that 150-200 people voted in the Aula on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. One student, Charlie From ’25, said in a written correspondence, “[V]oting in the Aula made the trip so much easier, considering I missed my first voting shuttle, I would have had to Uber to the previous polling location.” 

From added that the last-minute change was a bit concerning, but they said, “I’d like to give the biggest thank you to our friends at Democracy Matters who made this polling site happen.”

Democracy Matters was in fact still working on informing students about the two previous polling sites up through Monday afternoon. Lawler said, “We didn’t find out about the poll site until President Bradley sent the email to the entire school. Earlier that morning we had received word that there would not be a poll site on campus as there was not enough time to get the electronic voting machines up and running.”

She added that it went as well as one could have expected, given the tough circumstances. She said, “When we initially started working on this we thought it was pretty unlikely that we’d be able to make a change by this years’ election so I was really pleased that we were able to make it happen.”

In an effort to spread information on the new polling location on campus, President of the College Elizabeth Bradley sent an email Monday afternoon to inform students as to the new voting procedures for the next day. She wrote, “We were informed this afternoon that last week’s ruling by the Dutchess County Supreme Court designating a polling site on-campus will stand, and that by law the site must be available tomorrow. With last week’s ruling and the news this afternoon, we are currently underway with preparing the Aula (in Ely Hall) to welcome students and the local community tomorrow on Election Day.”

Lawrence praised the administration for their help and support in bringing a polling site to Vassar’s campus. “Admin was very helpful in getting the poll site up and running. Given that it was [so] last minute, which was entirely out of their control, I’m not sure there was much more that could’ve been done to get the word out apart from PBs email,” she expressed.

Dixon added that in Bradley’s weekly Sunday email, she informed students of the uncertainty given Friday’s appeal by Haight. He said, “Once we received final word Monday afternoon, she sent a campus-wide communication updating everyone with the details, which was amplified via Vassar’s website and social media channels.”

Local residents have expressed hesitancy towards adding a polling location at college campuses. However, Clark emphasized the importance of establishing these polling sites: “I understand some people—voters—feel college kids, ‘why are they voting here?’ But you guys are here almost all year round. You’re counted in the census that gives us the number of representatives we get in the first place. You spend money here, you are affected by the laws that are passed here, of course, you should have a vote.”

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