• Darien Lamen

"It Was Disenfranchisement": Voters and Candidates Voice Frustration Over Poll Access, Safety

by DARIEN LAMEN

(WXIR-Rochester) Robin Matthews Bell describes herself as a lifelong Democrat. She lives in a senior high-rise on the north side of town. And while voting is usually straightforward for her, during this year's primary election, things were different.


"It was crazy. First of all, you had to wait outside so long because there were so many people," Bell says. "I normally go downstairs in my building and vote. That's what I couldn't understand. Why they didn't bring that stuff into the building."


Bell’s polling place was moved to a church across town that was too far away for her to walk.  And while she was able to get a ride, she says many of her neighbors weren't.


During a Working Families Party press conference Thursday, incumbent Assemblymember Harry Bronson said his campaign got a number of calls from high-rise residents like Bell who were affected by changes to polling places.


"We have to ask, How were these polling sites selected? I get, and again, the [Monroe County Elections] commissioners said there were some schools that didn't want polling sites because of COVID-19 and things of that nature," Bronson said.


"But it's probably more risky to send low-income folks, people with disabilities, senior citizens who live in these high-rises, it's more risky to send them to another location to vote instead of having voting right in those high-rises," Bronson said, adding, "And it was disenfranchisement. That's what it was."


Last week Bronson's campaign preemptively petitioned the courts to intervene in the local primaries in order to safeguard the results, citing numerous "irregularities" during the lead-up to the election and naming the Monroe County Elections Commissioners as respondents.


Bronson is fighting to maintain his seat after the Democratic Party establishment threw its weight behind his opponent Alex Yudelson.


Internal party politics aside, the concerns Bronson highlighted were echoed by a number of Rochester area voters, especially those with mobility and health issues.


Polling place accessibility

Sarah Mae Richens says voting is a tradition in her family. But this year a number of factors conspired to prevent her from voting.  


"It's something my mother and I have done every election together, we make it very special. And this is the first election I haven't been able to vote in since I've been registered," Richens says. "It's kind of heartbreaking."


Richens describes herself as handicapped and immunocompromised. 


She says her ordeal Tuesday started when she discovered her normal polling site at an elementary school with ample parking had been moved a mile or so away to the Monroe County [Parks building] in Highland Park, where handicap accessible parking is scarce.


"I circled the park...and I luckily pulled over just as someone was pulling out, but it was pretty far from the polling station itself. And there were about 25 people when I pulled in that were waiting in line outside."


It had been raining on and off that afternoon, and Richens was concerned about standing outside for an extended period of time.


"I was like, I'm immunocompromised, I don't know if I should be standing out in the rain. I waited for about 15 minutes and just saw the line get longer and I saw people without masks walking up and that just kind of sealed the deal."


Richens decided to go home and try to come back later. That was around 6:45pm.


"As soon as I pulled in [my] driveway, we started to get a torrential downpour and a severe thunderstorm, and all I could imagine in my head was every single person in that line either running to their car or trying to run inside. So I didn't end up getting there to vote which really disappointed me."


Jessica Fleming says she had been looking forward to voting in person this year, since she was running for a spot on the Monroe County Democratic Committee.


But when she got to her normal polling place at the RTS building in the Beechwood Neighborhood, she found the polling site had been moved over a mile away to the Community Place on Parsells.


"So I didn't have time before I started my work meeting to run over to Parsells, and my kids were dropped off to me by their dad, he had to go to work. So when I finished the work meetings, I was able to run over to Parsells but by this time I had my children with me," Fleming explains.


"And both of my kids have autism. One has a hard time with following directions, he has problems with personal space. But it was important to me to vote anyway."


Fleming says she was fortunate not to have to wait in line to vote. But she says the new polling place was crowded and claustrophobic.


"I would say there were at least 30 people in a very small room. It wasn't possible to stay 6 feet apart. There wasn't enough places to fill out a ballot specifically with my kid running around. And the [Community Place] has a low-hanging ceiling, so it just didn't feel particularly safe," Fleming says.


Absentee vs. in-person: worst of both worlds?

Back in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic was heating up, Governor Cuomo loosened the restrictions on absentee voting to allow more people to vote from the safety of their homes during the upcoming primary elections.


According to preliminary numbers, around 3 times as many people in Monroe County voted by mail as in person this year.


But for people like Sarah Mae Richens, whose partner is an essential worker, the extra step of applying for an absentee ballot in the midst of a pandemic was just one more thing to worry about.


"We just had so much going on, it was just another thing on the plate that I didn't get to," she says.


Even among voters who did apply for an absentee ballot by the deadline, many have reported problems. Some have said their ballot didn’t come in time or to the right address; some have said their ballot didn’t include the correct candidates for their district.


During a press conference Thursday, Monroe County’s Elections Commissioners defended the integrity of Tuesday’s primary election amid calls for them to resign. They said for example that the long lines many polling places were reporting were because voters were observing social distancing guidelines.


But the commissioners acknowledged that there was room for improvement, particularly in the area of poll worker training, which recently became a hotly politicized issue.


Jessica Fleming believes there’s got to be a better way.


"To me it seems like we ought to be spreading folks out so that there's less exposure. Unless they were going to close in-person voting altogether and do all mail-in. But then obviously everyone would need to get their ballot," Fleming says.


Robin Matthews Bell says she'd still prefer to vote in person in November, but only from the safety of her own building.


"I just want to see it back in our building. We have a store downstairs. We do social distancing to go to the store. We can do social distancing to vote," she says.


It remains to be seen whether elections officials will take these voters' experience to heart in preparing for the November general election.


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Darien Lamen is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can be reached at wxirnews@gmail.com.

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