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According to an article published by Gothamist, 52 organizations in New York City objected to their designation as early voting sites in 2019. Among them are some of the city’s most prominent arts institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Bronx Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the New-York Historical Society, the Shed, and Lincoln Center, all of which are tax-exempt.
Section 4-104 of New York State’s election laws dictates that “a building exempt from taxation shall be used whenever possible as a polling place if it is situated in the same or a contiguous election district.” State law also stipulates that organizations can file an objection to this designation if its building’s use as a voting site would “unreasonably interfere with the usual activities conducted in such building.” Only public schools cannot object to being designated a poll site.
According to Gothamist, the organizations’ reasons for requesting an exemption were diverse. The New York-Historical Society, for example, claimed it had planned “major events with hundreds of people” on the dates of the 2019 primary and general elections that required “unimpeded access to the first floor and the use of almost the entire building.” A spokeswoman for the museum hopes they can be reconsidered again in the future, telling Gothamist that voting “aligns with [their] institutional mission.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art said using its Fifth Avenue building as a polling site would cause “an extreme hardship.”
Institutions’ resistance to offering their spaces for voting, while continuing to enjoy benefits on their property tax bills, raises timely questions about their public missions. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, museums around the country will present exhibitions this year that celebrate the hard-won suffrage victory and examine the gender and race inequalities that endure today. (The New-York Historical Society, for example, will open its exhibition about women’s activism Women March, in February.)
Following reports of long lines, broken equipment, and other setbacks during the November 2018 midterm elections, New York became one of the 39 states that allows early voting. Exceptionally high voter turnout is projected for 2020, emphasizing the need for sufficient, well-prepared, and geographically accessible polling sites.
“New Yorkers need to be able to vote in their neighborhoods, not at a handful of inconvenient sites in each borough,” wrote Mayor Bill de Blasio in an April 2019 letter to the Commissioners of Elections.