The New York Civil Liberties Union is urging the Dutchess County Board of Elections to take specific precautions to protect the voting rights of Bard and Vassar College students at polling places on Election Day.

Following the 2009 general election, the NYCLU received numerous complaints from students, poll watchers and other county residents concerning attempts to challenge the residency of college students when they show up at the polls to vote.

According to the complaints the NYCLU received last year, students were challenged on the basis of residency. Those challenges were not based on specific information that the individuals trying to vote were not living where they claimed to be living. Instead, the challenges were simply directed at voters who appeared to be college students based upon the erroneous assumption that college students should not be considered residents of their college communities.

“Students have the right to register and vote within their college community, but it appears that there was a concerted effort in Dutchess County last year to keep students of local colleges from casting their ballots,” said Linda Berns, director of the NYCLU’s Lower Hudson Valley Chapter. “To prevent a recurrence of this effort at voter suppression, the Board of Elections should instruct its poll inspectors to question any voting polling place challenges directed at students.”

In a letter dated Oct. 27 to local election commissioners David Gamache and Fran Knapp, the NYCLU cites federal case law establishing students’ right to acquire voting residency in their college community.

The NYCLU urges the election commissioners to instruct its election inspectors to pose a series of questions to individuals who challenge a student’s right to vote based on residency. If inspectors determine that the challenge is based solely upon the voter’s status as a student, then it should be immediately dismissed and the student should be allowed to vote.

“Polling place challengers cannot question an individual’s right to vote simply because that person looks like a college student,” NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg said. “State election law requires election inspectors to fully understand and report the reason for challenges. By asking a few simple questions, inspectors can protect students’ voting rights.”