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Vassar students will vote on campus, after all, after last-minute court ruling

This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal.

After an appeal, a weekend of confusion and a last-minute decision by the state's appellate court, students at Vassar College will get to vote on campus Tuesday.

Republican Elections Commissioner Erik Haight on Friday filed an appeal to a Dutchess County Supreme Court decision Thursday stating the school was entitled to a site under state law, halting the BOE's efforts to establishing a polling site on campus.

A Second Judicial Department of New York Appellate Division judge Monday, though, said that appeal did not mean there is a stay on Judge Christie L. D'Alessio’s order and confirmed a site must be established.

Michael Treybich, attorney for Democrat Elections Commissioner Hannah Black, said the Republicans "see the writing on the wall. If there is not a polling site at Vassar College (Tuesday), the next step is going to be make a motion to hold them in contempt of court." Treybich said he learned of the change around 2 pm Monday.

The decision changed plans on campus for a second time in less than a week, after it appeared over the weekend the BOE had run out of time to create a site. Black said no work was done over the weekend to create the site, as the Republicans believed there was a stay to the court order.

The clash marked the latest instance in which the Republican elections commissioner has fought efforts to hold voting on local college campuses, though the first time since New York in April passed a law stating a school with at least 300 registered voters on campus be granted a polling site if it chooses to host one.

The League of Women Voters of the Mid-Hudson Region, along with a college professor and student, last week sued the BOE and its elections commissioners under the state law in order to establish a voting site. Black, in an affidavit accompanying the suit, stated the latest a polling site could be installed was Friday, Nov. 4.

What will happen on campus

Vassar has roughly 1,100 registered voters on its Town of Poughkeepsie campus, though split among three election districts. 

The polling site will be available to voters in all three districts, the school said – both among students and other voters who live within the district’s boundaries. The BOE will also operate its existing polling sites in each of the districts.

Vassar said the site would be at Ely Hall, though Black said, as of 3 p.m. Monday, the Republican representatives had yet to agree to that site.

Black said some of the voting machines and poll pads from the other polling sites will be sent to the campus, a suggestion from the Republican side.

Legal action

The initial suit filed claimed the BOE failed to comply with state law. In her decision Thursday, D'Alessio said "The plain language of Election Law g 4-104[5-a] which includes the word 'shall' (as opposed to 'may' or 'should') specifically mandates the designation of a voting polling place on a college or university campus."

She said the petitioner demonstrated the campus satisfied the state law requirements, which was to have 300 or more registrants on campus.

Haight indicated the order from D'Alessio was too "vague" to proceed, injecting the notion it would require the BOE to close other polling sites in the district, without D'Alessio making mention of that.

He said D'Alessio on Monday provided "just enough clarity for the BOE to comply which is what we are doing."

Last-minute action

Though the law was passed in April, and the school first requested a site in August, no lawsuit challenging the BOE was filed before last week.

The League of Women Voters said they wanted to use legal action only as a last resort. It also took time for them to find an attorney who could handle the case.

The League, along with other organizations, sent letters to the BOE, the county executive and the chair of the county's Legislature, hoping action would be taken. Under county law, the BOE commissioners are appointed by and serve at the "pleasure" of the county Legislature. The League did not receive a response from the county.

It's also unclear what mechanism is in place at the state level to enforce its law. Representatives from the state have not responded to inquiries.

Vassar, which did not request a site until after the state deadline to have a site designated, stated it was the BOE's responsibility to designate.

"The responsibility to designate polling sites lies with the Board of Elections, not the college. The college responded to the outreach from the Board of Elections in August, when we were first contacted. We have cooperated with the Board of the Elections throughout the whole process," said Wesley Dixon, special assistant to the president of Vassar College.

Previously, Haight had fought to keep Bard from hosting a polling site. A court ultimately forced the BOE to designate the college as a site about a week before the 2020 election after a series of lawsuits and appeals.

Bard filed a complaint earlier this year after it said Haight shorted resources to its polling site. The college last month announced the site will be fully staffed with the required number of polling machines in November. It will be the only polling site for Red Hook's fifth district, after the BOE closed the site it previously maintained at St. John's Episcopal Church, which operated concurrently with the college the last two years.

In 2018, former Democrat Commissioner Marco Caviglia, tried unsuccessfully to have the polling place relocated from Arthur S. May Elementary School on Dutchess Turnpike to Vassar College.