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County in upstate New York ordered to change early voting sites

A five-judge panel gave the Rensselaer County Board of Elections until next week to designate new early voting sites for the November general election that ensure equal access for all voters.

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — A New York appeals panel on Thursday affirmed the state attorney general’s injunction against the Rensselaer County Board of Elections requiring it to provide Black and Latino voters in the upstate county with equal access to early voting locations.

Attorney General Letitia James sued the county in May, accusing the elections board and its commissioners, Jason Schofield and Edward McDonough, of failing to provide voters with "adequate and equitable access" to early voting poll sites, as required by New York state’s early voting law.

Just across the Hudson River from state government offices in Albany, most minorities in Rensselaer County live in Troy, making up more than 30% of the city's population but only about 14% of the county's. James alleged her in office’s complaint that Rensselaer County continually violated state election law by consistently designating early voting sites that provide only minimal access by public transportation, particularly for voters commuting from Troy’s northern neighborhoods.

Of Troy’s 49,000 residents, according to the complaint, 63.5% are white, 16.1% are Black, 9.6% are Latino, and 4.8% Asian.

On June 7, New York Supreme Court justice Adam W. Silverman tossed out Rensselaer County’s three rural early voting locations for being too far spread out and not providing equitable access for people of color, and ordered the elections board to have new polling places selected by two days later.

With early voting in the state’s June primary elections set to begin that Saturday, the Rensselaer County Board of Elections instead appealed Silverman’s decision to challenge the annulment of exiting early voting sites.

The New York Supreme Court's 3rd Appellate Division affirmed Silverman’s underlying order Thursday and found that the elections board failed to adhere to the new law about the location of early voting places through choices it made for 2020 and did not make any revisions for 2021.

The five-judge panel unanimously ruled that Rensselaer County’s designated sites did not meet state law requirements and said the board failed to conduct a serious assessment of the site or the law.

“In attempting to explain their actions after the fact, the commissioners baldly averred that they had considered all the statutory factors as part of a ‘rigorous process’ to establish early voting polling places,” Presiding Justice Elizabeth A. Garry wrote for the court. “Yet, they provided few specifics as to the information they relied upon or how any of the required factors supported their determination.”

Justices Michael Lynch, Christine Clark, Stan Pritzker and John Colangelo concurred with 11-page opinion.

The appellate court criticized the elections board for seemingly not complying with the lower court's June demand to pick new sites “by the earliest date practical,” and ordered compliance by Sept. 3. 

Early voting for the November general election will be held Oct. 23-31.

Representatives for the County elections board did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon.

The Troy branch of the NAACP intervened in the appeal proceedings on behalf of city residents who specifically challenged the county's polling site at Holy Cross Armenian Church, the only designated early voting location in Troy, for not satisfying the statutory criteria and not being easily accessible to the city's residents.

Earlier this month, the New York Civil Liberties Union also filed a motion to intervene in the appeal on behalf of Rensselaer County residents.

“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, in a statement accompanying the motion to intervene. “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."

In last year’s presidential election, Democrat Joe Biden won Rensselaer County over Republican incumbent Donald Trump 51% to 46%, a nearly 4,500-vote margin. Trump had defeated his 2016 Democratic opponent Hilary Clinton by just more than a thousand votes in the county, with neither candidate winning more than 47%.

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Categories / Appeals, Government, Politics, Regional

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