Plan to move, reduce Valley Stream polling places is nixed


The change was intended to respect state voting laws and operate elections more efficiently. But Valley Stream village officials are rolling back plans that would have reduced the number of polling sites and pulled them from public schools after some public outcry that the move would make voting more difficult.

Instead, trustees were expected to consider a list of polling sites during their regular board meeting Tuesday night, after the Herald went to press, that very much resembled ballot-casting location maps from the past.

“The village maintains in strongest terms that in no way is there an effort to suppress any vote,” said the village clerk, James Hunter. “However, since a small number of people have expressed a concern, we will err on the side of caution.”

The original plan would have removed institutions like the Shaw Avenue School and the Valley Stream Central High School from the polling place maps, and instead, put them at locations like Hendrickson Park pool complex and the Engine Co. 1 headquarters on Rockaway Parkway. There were two primary factors affecting the move, Hunter said: Student safety when it comes to Covid-19 and having strangers in the school, as well as the fact schools now require visitors to present a state identification card before entering.

State law prohibits polling sites from asking for such identification from voters, Hunter said.

The plan also was an effort to get some polling places closer to the people who want to cast ballots. Even if the village reduced the number of voting locations from 13 to eight, Valley Stream would still exceed the number of locations required by law, Hunter said.

“We go far beyond most neighboring villages per voter-location ratios,” Hunter said.

In just a couple weeks, voters will head to the polls to cast their vote for mayor, two village trustees and a village justice.

The original plan to reduce and move polling sites was criticized by some observers for its potential to introduce confusion and frustration into the election process. Fewer polling sites typically translate to longer wait times. A switch-up in voting locations could be an added headache, discouraging would-be voters from going to the polls in the first place.

All of these issues could lead to lower turnout, placing a particular strain on low-income, disabled and minority populations.

“People are taking time out of their day to vote, so making the process as hassle-free as possible is critical,” said Phil Dalton, director of Hofstra University’s Center for Civic Engagement.

Schools and churches have long served as popular polling sites for those who live in the densely residential neighborhoods that often spring up around them — and for good reason. The closeness and familiarity neighbors have come to associate with public schools lower their perceived logistical burden of going out to vote.

But even with the village going back to its original setup, Hunter stresses there are still issues with voting in schools.

“Unlike presidential or gubernatorial elections, village elections are conducted during a regular school day, when students and staff are present,” the clerk said. “The presence of election equipment, workers and voters can be very disruptive to students and the faculty. Entrance to the building by others who may not be there to vote is a safety and security risk.

“Also, schools now require a photo ID to enter, which is not required in state election law.”

If the village were to eventually consider moving polling places, that could be a problem for Nassau County Legislator Carrié Solages, who contends the logistical burden of these cuts could fall disproportionately on minority voters. Some areas of Valley Stream home to a dense portion of the village’s non-white population, would see fewer polling places if the village’s original changes were implemented, Solages said.

“Remarkably, despite these severe cuts to Valley Stream’s minority communities, access to polling places in the village’s less diverse communities would be protected and even expanded under this proposal,” the legislator said.

The village is strapped for suitable village properties to host voting precincts on the west end, Hunter said, while other potential polling locations that he had hoped to use — like the Clear Stream Firehouse — have been used in past elections.

“Even when municipalities and villages face a cutback in polling places, it’s just as paramount for the village and political parties to not only get the vote out, but inform the public of the new locations,” Dalton said.

Adequate staffing of polling stations and robust awareness campaigns of polling locations help ensure a smooth process and avoid crowds.

For its part, the village plans to publish the location, date, and time of each poll site, 60 days prior to the election, Hunter noted, as well as publish in the newspaper and village website the poll site locations 10 days prior to Election Day.

Copies of the published notice will also be posted in six public places within the village, and at each polling location.

“A village election has many moving parts to them, but we are committed to conducting a professional election and following election law to its fullest,” Hunter said. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to get every possible voter to the polling sites.”

Additional reporting by Michael Hinman.

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