Town may lose one of its two polling places

ANCRAMDALE–The Ancramdale Presbyterian Church Hall on County Route 8 in the hamlet has served as the polling place for voters in Ancram District #2 for over 50 years. But it may lose that designation because it does not comply with standards for handicapped accessibility.

Town Supervisor Art Bassin raised the prospect that the Columbia County Board of Elections would eliminate the church hall as the polling place for voting district #2 at the February 18 Town Board meeting. And after the meeting he said that Democratic Election Commissioner Virginia Martin and Deputy Democratic Election Commissioner Hilary Hillman spoke to him about the idea when they came to Ancram January 21 to investigate voter complaints that the votes they cast last November were missing and not counted. Elimination of the church hall as a polling place will make it necessary for all 500 voters in District #2 to cast their ballots at the Town Hall along with the 560 voters in District #1, who already vote there.

Ms. Martin said Ancramdale is the only polling site in the county that does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The two voting districts are roughly delineated by dividing the town in half diagonally from the southwest corner to the northeast corner. Voters who live on the west side of the dividing line vote in District #1 and voters who live east of the line vote in District #2.  The Board of Elections supplies the church hall with a temporary ramp on all voting occasions, but the hall restrooms are not wheelchair accessible as required under the ADA.

Lifelong Ancramdale resident and member of the Ancramdale Presbyterian Church Avery “Prope” Dietter told the Town Board that the Board of Elections will probably have to go forward with the closure, because the church “sure as hell can’t afford” to make the necessary renovations.

Noting he has voted at various locations in Ancramdale for “60 plus years,” Mr. Dietter said, “I don’t feel happy about it, but we can’t afford it and that’s where we stand.” Mr. Dietter said by phone February 24 that the 30 and 40 members of the church cannot pay for the renovations. He suggested the changes might be possible with financial help from the community.

Town Clerk Monica Cleveland, the church’s clerk of session, said when the church hall was built about 53 years ago there “was no such thing as handicapped access” and to make the building comply now will require ripping out and relocating the building’s heating and hot water systems. “It’s not just a ramp issue,” she said.

For many years the town paid the church an annual fee of $500 to use the church hall as a polling place. But in 2006 the county Board of Elections took over voting operations; it pays $150 per use of the hall. Mrs. Cleveland said that amount is just enough to cover the church’s costs for heat and lights for the day.

Bob Mayhew, an Ancramdale resident and former councilman, suggested that many people who live in Ancramdale and further east will probably forego voting if they have to travel to Ancram, a trip of up to seven miles for some.

Supervisor Bassin said the town can oppose the closure and has to decide “how hard we want to fight.”

Commissioner Martin said this week that the decision whether to eliminate the Ancramdale polling place will be made sometime in the next couple of months. She said that while she is not necessarily in favor of closing and consolidating poll sites, all voters must have access to their poll sites, and if the site cannot be made accessible it should be closed. “It’s the law, but it’s also the right thing to do,” said Ms. Martin.

Last summer the county Board of Elections began “a concerted effort to make sure we were doing a good job for people with disabilities,” starting an outreach program to let them know they can vote independently and privately at the polls. The county hired specialists to assist with that goal, and the Board of Elections now provides new ballot marking devices designed to address the needs of any qualified voter.

The elections board also employs 22 poll site specialists, 1 for every 2 of the county’s 42 polling places. They are stationed at poll sites to assist voters as needed, Ms. Martin said. The county would save some money if the Ancramdale site were closed, but Ms. Martin said she is not sure how much.

If the county does close the District #2 site, a second voting machine would be set up at Town Hall.

The same number of voting inspectors would have to be employed at the one Ancram polling site as now work at the two sites. Those inspectors are trained and paid by the county. Inspectors make $9.50/hour and the inspector chair makes $10/hour.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.

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