NYCLU Seeks to Intervene in AG’s Suit Against Rensselaer County BOE

Motion asks Court to address BOE’s failure to open early voting sites for marginalized voters in Troy

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
August 6, 2021 10:45 am

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RENSSELAER COUNTY – Today the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a motion to intervene on behalf of Rensselaer County residents and the Troy NAACP in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit against the Rensselaer County Board of Elections (BOE) for their refusal to provide Troy residents, including voters of color, low-income voters, and voters with disabilities, with equitable access to early voting sites, as required by state law.

“Adequate and equitable access to early voting provides all New Yorkers, but especially the most vulnerable, with a meaningful opportunity to exercise their right to vote.” said Perry Grossman, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “Early voting lowers the barriers to the ballot. By persistently locating early voting sites in places not reasonably accessible to many Troy voters, the BOE is ignoring the law and making the cost of early voting prohibitive for those who need it the most but can least afford it. Early voting offers necessary flexibility to vote for people who have work or care obligations, provides a lifeline for those voters for whom absentee ballots are not accessible, and enables those who have been the target of voter suppression to build power by voting together with other members of their community. The NYCLU stands with the Attorney General’s office in our commitment to ensuring adequate and equitable access to early voting in Troy.”

Despite the availability of potential early voting sites in Troy — the most densely populated area of the county — the BOE and its commissioners refuse to select an early voting site that is easily accessible Troy residents, where the majority of the county’s Black, Latinx, and lower-income residents reside. After the Rensselaer County Supreme Court’s June 2021 ruling that the BOE’s refusal to place an early voting site in a centrally located area of Troy was arbitrary and capricious, the Rensselaer County BOE appealed the AG’s suit to the Third Department, contesting the AG’s standing to protect Troy voters’ rights through the courts.

Troy comprises almost a third of Rensselaer County’s population, and many Troy voters, including Black, Latinx, disabled, and low-income residents, rely on public transportation to exercise their right to vote. However, the BOE has consistently selected early voting sites that provide only minimal access by public transportation, particularly for voters commuting from Troy’s northern neighborhoods. These decisions were made despite the availability of centrally located sites in Troy that are preferable based on nearly every factor BOE was required to consider, analysis which a coalition of advocates, including the NYCLU, has repeatedly provided to the BOE since 2019. The NYCLU is seeking intervention on behalf of the Troy NAACP and individual voters to ensure that the access to early voting won at the trial court is not lost to a jurisdictional shell game.

“As a visually-impaired person, I must vote in person because absentee ballots do not allow me to vote privately and independently. I don’t drive and I rely on public transportation to commute to work. It would be dangerous for me to walk two miles each way on roads with no sidewalks and cumbersome to travel two hours with multiple bus transfers to vote. I will not leave my right to participate in our democracy to the whims of unreliable paratransit. I’m taking action today to bring the racial injustice, income discrimination, and discrimination against people with disabilities inherent in the BOE’s voting rights violations against my community to an end,” said Rensselaer County resident Clifton Perez.

“I’ve never missed an election in five decades until 2o2o, when long lines and a lack of polling places prevented me from casting my vote. As a senior citizen in public housing, I’d love to be able to vote early, but can’t afford to travel across town and wait in long lines to do so. My ability to vote is at risk unless an early voting location opens in our community,” said Rensselaer County resident Sharon Ferguson.

“I cannot afford to turn down jobs because they make it difficult for me to travel nearly three hours round trip to cast a ballot on Election Day. All New Yorkers should have the opportunity to vote early – it’s state law, not just a right for those with means. If the Rensselaer County Board of Elections opened an early voting site in our community, my ability to exercise my right to vote would be substantially less burdened than it is now,” said Rensselaer County resident Danielle Colin Charlestin.

“Troy NAACP members want to vote early in-person, but we have been deterred from doing so, or unable to do so, because there is no early voting site that is reasonably accessible for our members or the communities we serve. To deny Troy’s communities of color adequate and equitable access to an early voting location is nothing short of voter suppression,” said RenéePowell, president of the Troy NAACP.

The BOE is contesting the Attorney General’s authority to bring suits to protect New Yorkers’ voting rights from violations of the Election Law, such as the BOE’s failure to provide adequate and equitable access to early voting sites. Instead, the BOE argues that the State Board of Elections is the only state agency with the authority to prosecute violations of the Election Law. But the “bipartisan” State BOE is designed to protect the interests of the two major political parties and the incumbent officials who run them, not marginalized New Yorkers seeking equitable participation in our democracy.

As the Moreland Commission found, the BOE “lacks the structural independence, the resources, and the will to enforce election and campaign finance laws,” noting that “[t]he Board’s ‘bipartisan’ structure has effectively led to a tacit, bipartisan agreement to do nothing – or, as one former enforcement counsel said, to ‘do the basement,’” leading to “an extreme paucity of actual investigations; and an abject failure to use legal and human resources for enforcement.” The BOE’s claim that the State Board of Elections should be the State’s sole voting rights enforcement authority is tantamount to arguing that there should be no voting rights enforcement at all. The NYCLU agrees with the AG that her office has the authority to enforce the voting rights of New Yorkers.

“Rensselaer County BOE commissioners have abdicated their responsibility to ensure that Troy residents can exercise their right to vote for far too long,” said Melanie Trimble, capital region chapter director, New York Civil Liberties Union. “When the Rensselaer County BOE added an early voting location during the 2020 elections, it was in one of the least convenient possible locations for Black, Latinx and low-income voters. This is textbook voter suppression, and it must be stopped. We are proud to stand with the Attorney General to fight for robust and inclusive early access to the polls in Troy, and wherever voting rights are at risk.”

For the NYCLU, staff attorney Amy Belsher is co-counsel for Intervenors, the Troy NAACP and the individual voters. In May, research analyst Jesse Barber provided an affidavit with a detailed analysis of voting and demographic data concerning the early voting sites that the Attorney General submitted with her successful petition.

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