Voter Rights Articles

Jonathan Becker, Director CCE, A Response to Commissioner Haight

Professor Jonathan Becker responded to Election Commissioner Erik Haight's rejection of the on-campus polling site the Red Hook Town Board unanimously endorsed April 12, 2016 with an article in the Poughkeepsie Journal, "Election Commissioner Haight's decision breeds cynicism".

 Haight responded to this article in a piece called, "Set the record straight with facts," but Election@Bard has found numerous discrepancies between his report and reality. Professor Becker rebuts the piece below: 


I was pleased to see Erik Haight’s response to my piece in last week’s Poughkeepsie Journal, since he had failed to respond to letters, emails and phone calls from student leaders of Election@Bard regarding the same issue.

Let me begin by inviting Commissioner Haight to visit the Bard Campus Center, which is the proposed site for the polling place. The Campus Center is Bard’s primary public space, where public events are hosted almost daily. During his visit to campus, Commissioner Haight could directly tell student leaders and alums why the current polling site serves the public interest.
In the meantime, let me respond to some of Haight’s points.

What is the better polling place?
In his rebuttal, Haight spends the least time on the most important issue: Which potential polling location is best for the citizens of Red Hook? To reiterate what was previously argued: the majority of registered voters in District 5 can walk to the proposed polling place on paved and illuminated sidewalks, while the current location is on a rural county road that lacks sidewalks, is inaccessible via public transport, and is accessible to very few residents by foot. New York election law states that polling places “wherever practicable…shall be situated directly on a public transportation route.” The proposed location complies with this law; the current site does not. Haight ignores these laws, designed to promote active and safe participation in the electoral process, and even dismisses pedestrian safety as somehow not worthy of consideration.
The Bard site fulfills the requirement that polling places “shall be of sufficient area to admit and comfort­ably accommodate voters.” The Campus Center venue legally accommodates 417 people, and provides ample indoor space in adjacent corridors to hold all waiting voters.  The cramped current site can hold fewer than ten voters indoors. This is why, during April’s presidential primary, voters were forced to queue outdoors for nearly 45 minutes. Will voters be comfortable if there is bad weather in November? The proposed site also complies with federal disability law. Anyone who visits both sites will recognize that the Bard site is more accessible and more accommodating.
Haight defends the current location on the grounds that the polling place should primarily serve “permanent residents” and “taxpayers,” whom he depicts as more deserving than “student voters.” This suggests that students and those who do not pay property taxes in the area are somehow less deserving of electoral rights than those who do.
New York State election law recognizes neither of these considerations as relevant to the matter of polling place location. In fact, NYS law explicitly recognizes the equal rights of both. Given the nefarious history of poll taxes in this country, his invention of a tax-payer category is especially pernicious.
If we base the decision on the criteria set by New York State law, it is difficult to imagine any objective person looking at the two polling sites and deciding that the current site is better for voters.
 
Haight’s history of discrimination:  
Haight asserts “I have never and will never make it difficult for citizens of Dutchess County to vote.” This is simply false. Commissioner Haight has a history of discriminating against student voters, which is precisely why students question his integrity and capacity for fairness.
In 2012, Haight was named the defendant in a federal class-action voting rights lawsuit filed by students at Bard, Marist, and the Culinary Institute of America. Sued for unjustly rejecting their voter registration applications, Haight had ample opportunity to avoid costly litigation, but he ignored letters from the students’ counsel outlining the relevant state and federal laws that he was violating.
Undeterred by the force of law, Haight fought to reject the registrations of more than 100 students until Judge Kenneth Karas, a George Bush appointee, ruled against him on the eve of the election. So poor was Haight’s judgment in this matter that in the consent decree signed months later, the taxpayers of Dutchess County were forced to pay nearly $60,000 to cover the students’ and Election Commissioners’ legal fees. Haight may have forgotten this incident, but students have not.
And, yes, his activity extended to removing students and long-time voters from the rolls, including head of Bard’s Political Studies program, who lived on campus for 15 years, and its Executive Vice President, who lived in the same residence on campus for more than 30 years. When attempting to vote in 2012 they, like many others, had disappeared from voting book, victims of Haight’s aggressive cleansing of the voter rolls.

Data:
Haight questions the numbers cited in my editorial. We will run a complete analysis and post on www.election.bard.edu/projects as soon as Haight responds to a Freedom of Information request. However, one can see immediately that Haight failing with basic arithmetic.
In his response, Haight questions the integrity of our data, but fails to calculate a percentage. According to data and assumptions he cites (subtracting 200 students from the rolls), a minimum of 62% of voters in District 5 are Bard students (571 out of 916). But even that underestimates the number of Bard affiliated people in District 5. Bard is the largest employer in Northern Dutchess County. There are many Bard-affiliated faculty, employees, retirees, and families who live on or near the Bard campus, and are District 5 voters whom Haight does not take into account. A quick review of data from last month’s presidential primary shows that when this is taken into account, approximately 75% of those who cast ballots were Bard affiliated.

Bard and the Community:
Implicit in what Haight writes is the opinion that the Bard campus is somehow closed and intimidating to the public, that non-student voters “rarely, if ever, visit campus.” This demonstrates complete and almost willful ignorance of life in Northern Dutchess.
Bard is an open campus that welcomes and regularly invites members of the local community to utilize its facilities and to engage in its educational and cultural programs. Bard attracts thousands of local visitors annually, hosting numerous high school sporting events featuring Red Hook and other area teams, athletic facilities that are open to the public, middle and high school concerts, Model UN and debate tournaments, summer athletic and music camps, and a Lifetime Learning Institute that regularly brings close to 300 senior citizens to campus. Later this month Bard will, yet again, host the safe, after-prom party for Red Hook High. Far more Red Hook residents regularly visit the Bard campus than the small Episcopal church where voting currently takes place.
Why does Haight, who obviously has little knowledge of the area and clearly has not visited, so vigorously defend the current site? Given that the elected officials of the Red Hook Town Board voted unanimously to move the polling site, as did fellow commissioner Marco Caviglia, what is the principle for which Haight is fighting?

Consequences:
What Haight does not seem to grasp is the damage his decisions have on young people. Even after the successful Federal lawsuit which overturned Haight’s discriminatory acts against college students, several students, even after having been reinstated as voters, did not vote, either because they learned that they had become eligible too late, or because they were so disgusted with how they were treated in their first time voting that they disengaged. This is the cynicism of which I speak. Haight seems blithely unaware of the consequences of his illegal actions and his refusal to address students about their concerns. Voting as a young adult at the polls and engaging with the political process instills lifelong habits. What message does it send to young people when the practices of government disenfranchise them and relegate them to second-class citizenship? Clearly we are sending the wrong message. We can do better.  For the sake of the nation, we must.