Wanted: fully accessible building with at least one large room and ample parking spots near the door, but only for a handful of days each year. Fulfilling that request is one of the more challenging tasks put to Ulster County Election Commissioners Tom Turco and Ashley Dittus. A number of places in New Paltz which have been used in recent years have proven inadequate in one way or another, and every changed location leads to voter confusion and the possibility that someone missed out on exercising the right to vote.
Voting for the September 13 primary took place at the former Gateway building on North Chestnut Street in New Paltz. As a buyer is being sought, the location was always known to be a temporary one, Dittus said, but it was hoped it would serve better than it did. “It’s a huge former skating rink,” Dittus said, with more than enough room to fit voting for all the districts, “but now I’m hearing that parking was a problem.”
Parking was indeed a problem, mostly because of the timing. This primary took place on a Thursday rather than the more common Tuesday, with state lawmakers moving it to avoid conflicting with Rosh Hashanah. There’s also some reluctance to hold votes on September 11, despite — or perhaps because — a primary was held on that infamous day in 2001. On Thursdays, another group is also in the building, and those users took up a lot of the parking.
“I’m sure we lost some people,” said voter Chris Bernabo, who wrote to the commissioners expressing his frustration over parking at Gateway. He was told what election officials have come to believe, that security issues are why no one’s voting at the schools any longer. “That’s a great message to kids,” he said, that “voting is dangerous. . . . everywhere I’ve lived, you vote at the schools.”
“It’s the nature of the beast,” said Turco; scaring up suitable sites is an issue throughout the county. “Poll sites are tough to find.”
The Gateway location was turned up during a recent search, which included soliciting opinions from local elected officials. One spot that has worked well for village elections is the firehouse on Plattekill Avenue; it was used for the June congressional primary with “few complaints,” according to Dittus. However, to address concerns about waiting in line, one district was moved over to Gateway for the September vote.
Dittus said electoral woes in New Paltz are tied to not being able to use the local schools, which is her preference. Voting at the middle school ended when construction in the lot made parking problematic, and there’s a more general sense in the county that school officials are concerned about voting bring security breaches to their fiefdoms.
Other locations which have been used in the past few years include the Jewish Community Center, Deyo Hall on Huguenot Street and the Ulster BOCES on North Chestnut. Each has limitations. The community center parking is not always enough for a high-turnout vote, and election officials need more than the four weeks advance notice temple officials can promise them regarding availability. “We have to notify voters of the location with post cards,” Dittus said.
The BOCES location was unpopular with voters. “People didn’t like the tables,” Dittus said, but if necessary special pop-up voting stations could be brought there. Nevertheless, a previously scheduled event left the space unavailable. As for Deyo Hall, board members of Historic Huguenot Street weren’t able to reach an agreement with the commissioners this year. “They wanted a lot of money, which we didn’t think was equitable,” Dittus said.
Frances Vigna, marketing and communications coordinator for the historic site, had a slightly different take. “Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) has generously allowed the Ulster County Board of Elections to use Deyo Hall as a polling place free-of-charge for several years prior to 2018,” she said in an e-mail. “Deyo Hall exists as HHS’s only rental venue, meeting hall and programmatic space, without which HHS would be unable to offer educational programs to the public or host local school groups. Due to the addition of a second primary day this year and the significant impact on HHS’s daily operations, the organization attempted to work with the board to help bridge the financial loss that HHS incurs when we close that facility for elections. HHS was willing to negotiate with the board in an effort to keep Deyo Hall open as a polling place. Ultimately, the Board of Elections determined it could not compensate HHS for the additional use of Deyo Hall.”
During an annual meeting of schools and election officials, a clear anxiety over elections and school security has emerged, Dittus said. That’s led to a deliberate attempt to scale back on using schools, but “in New Paltz, it’s one of our only viable options.” Efforts to return at least some voting to schools will be redoubled, she said.
That’s the same impression Turco has: “the schools don’t want us because of security.” In New Paltz, that has meant sequestering voters in the front of the building rather than holding elections in the gymnasium of the high school, as has been done previously. Specific questions directed to schools superintendent Maria Rice and school board president Michael O’Donnell about security concerns were not answered.
Bernabo, who attempted to reach Rice but received no response, thinks the security question is an “excuse,” and that hosting voting is a “civic duty” which taxpayers should be able to expect school officials to fulfill. The fact that school district votes are held in the high school gym is a decision he calls “hypocritical.”
Changing polling sites is something no election commissioner wants to do, Dittus said. This year a change took place between June and September primaries, which she considers the worst possible time, because many people are traveling and may miss the mailed notification. “It’s really challenging,” she said. “I wish we had early voting to whittle down the numbers,” which would increase options in New Paltz and around the county.
A measure to legalize early voting routinely passes in the assembly, and then is blocked by state senators, mostly from western New York. Dittus would like to see that changed. If one is in the mood to lobby, Turco’s pet issue is having Election Day declared a state holiday, which would resolve security questions at the schools by virtue of removing the students. As the polling hours are shorter for the numerous primaries, he believes the issues should be easier to mitigate.
While he didn’t address the security questions around the high school, O’Donnell did explain why voting at the middle school was suspended. “This decision was made by the Ulster County Board of Elections based on parking limitations resulting from ongoing construction. Personally, I would welcome the continued use of our schools as polling locations. Our buildings are community-owned assets that are a natural (and practical) choice to facilitate civic engagement.”
The paving of the middle school lot did create issues in 2017, but if overtures have been made to bring voting back, commissioners haven’t heard them yet. Superintendent Rice is also expressing some confusion about next steps, writing, “The law doesn’t allow for districts to refuse using a district site. . . . recent conversations were about using the [middle school] during construction. The last conversation I remember was about whether or not there would be enough parking spots available while construction is still using the area near the bus drop off. . . . I am unclear if they are planning on withdrawing the [middle school] as a site just during the construction, or always. I need to learn more about the decision to move the site.”
What’s clear is that November is fast approaching. County officials may opt to work on improving the locations used in September rather than move any voters, if possible. With any luck, clear communication between school and election offices will lead to a more stable voting situation going forward from there.