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Far-Flung Sites for Upstate Early Voting Trigger Suit by New York AG

Rensselaer County is accused of giving minority residents a short shrift by selecting early-voting poll sites far outside its most populous, and racially diverse, municipality.

ALBANY (CN) — Just across the Hudson River from New York state offices in Albany, most denizens of Rensselaer County, including that county's own government, hang their hats in the city of Troy.

Most minorities living in Rensselaer tend to live in Troy, representing more than 30% of the city population and only about 14% of the county. When it comes time for these citizens to vote, however, New York Attorney General Letitia James claims in a new complaint Thursday that says Rensselaer has a funny idea of what constitutes “adequate and equitable access” to poll sites.

New York demanded such access as part of "ground-breaking election reforms" the state passed in 2019, according to the complaint, in response to voter-turnout rates that consistently ranked among the lowest in the country.

"Two years and several election cycles after the legislation’s enactment, the BOE in Rensselaer County, New York has continually violated this law, failing to designate early voting poll sites at locations that ensure adequate and equitable access for voters in Troy as it is legally required to do," the 41-page complaint states.

James says Rensselaer completely missed the point of the law in first selecting a pair of early-vote locations that "are wealthier, less diverse, less accessible by public transportation, and already enjoy higher rates of voter turnout."

“It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that every person with the right to vote is able to do so without hardship, and I will do everything in my power to ensure every New Yorker has fair access to the polls,” James said in a statement announcing the lawsuit filed Thursday in the Rensselaer County Supreme Court.

The suit names Commissioners Jason Schofield, a Republican, and Edward McDonough, a Democrat, as co-defendants for failing to provide equal access required under the state's early voting law.

“Despite the availability of potential early voting sites in Troy — the most densely populated area of the county — BOE and its commissioners repeatedly refused to select an early voting site that was easily accessible to Troy residents, where the majority of the county’s Black, Hispanic, and lower-income communities reside,” James admonished in her statement.

The lawsuit, signed by Assistant Attorney General Lindsay McKenzie, seeks a court order to force the designation of an early voting site in Troy that will give voters better access in the June 2021 primary election.

Representatives for the county’s board of elections did not immediately respond to request for comment Thursday afternoon.

The unequivocally rural locations that the county first chose for early voting poll sites in 2019 were the Schodack Town Hall in Castleton-on-Hudson and the Brunswick Office Building. Troy voters with no car would have to sit on a bus for 90 minutes to reach the first one. The second would require a 2-mile walk after taking the bus to the last stop.

Despite suggestions from League of Women Voters, civic and church groups on other more suitable voting sites, James says the county missed the mark again when it finally added a Troy location last year. The Holy Cross Armenian Church, while technically within city limits, is on the southeastern edge of the city and in a more affluent neighborhood across town from a poorer section of city.

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

Renée Powell, president of the NAACP’s Troy branch, called James’ lawsuit “timely and needed.”

“Numerous earnest attempts were made to get the BOE to correct the problem of placing early voting sites in remote regions in Rensselaer County. My hope for this suit is to get equitable vote sites so that Rensselaer County residents can freely exercise their right to vote,” Powell said in a statement. “It is time for a change.”

J. Remy Green, a Queens-based attorney who won a recount of invalidated votes in New York’s June 2020 primary election, applauded the attorney general for bringing Thursday's suit. “It is very gratifying to see the attorney general fighting the wild vote suppression efforts that are part and parcel of elections in New York state," Green told Courthouse News. "But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

“New York's election law and culture is among the most vote-suppressive in the country,” Green added. “And I hope the attorney general's zeal for voting rights extends beyond this suit and into how her office routinely defends the laws that make up New York's wildly regressive, suppressive, and exclusionary system."

In last year’s presidential election, Democrat nominee Joe Biden won Rensselaer County over Republican incumbent Donald Trump by a firm 51% to 46%, a nearly 4,500-vote margin, according to county Board of Elections results.

Trump had defeated his 2016 opponent Hilary Clinton by just more than a thousand votes in the county, with neither candidate winning more than 47% of the vote.  

Fraud plagued the 2009 primary election in Troy with an investigation turning up several dozen forged absentee ballots in the contest. A judge in Rensselaer County appointed Youel Smith as a special prosecutor to look into the claims, which resulted in a 74-count indictment against McDonough, one of the election board commissioners named in the attorney general’s suit.

The first trial, which allegedly featured false testimony against McDonough, ended in a mistrial. The jury acquitted McDonough in the second, which ended on Dec. 21, 2012.

Three years after the acquittal, McDonough brought a civil suit against the special prosecutor seeking justice for the allegedly rampant fabrication of evidence, but a judge dismissed the suit for exceeding the three-year statute of limitations.

Though the Second Circuit affirmed that outcome, the Supreme Court reversed 6-3 in 2019 to revive his fabrication-of-evidence case.

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