Volume 74, Number 48 | April 06 - 12 , 2005


Art and politics don’t mix, as gallery is pulled as poll

By Albert Amateau

The Board of Elections has eliminated the only voting place in Soho and is searching for an alternative site after a decision that Democrats say has abridged the First Amendment right to free speech and that Republicans say makes sure that citizens are not subject to illegal electioneering at the polls.

The board has until May 1 to find an alternative polling place in Soho, a task that might prove difficult because the former warehouse district, which has become a neighborhood of residential lofts, has no public schools and few houses of worship, in which voting sites are usually located.

The action at the end of March when the elections board removed the Puffin Room gallery as a polling site was the result of a controversy that began on Election Day last year when Ed Skyler, a Republican and Mayor Bloomberg’s press secretary, went to his regular polling place in the gallery at 435 Broome St.

The exhibit on the gallery walls at the time, “Kingdom of Fear,” featured satirical posters critical of the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. One poster that Skyler found particularly offensive had a profile of a Nazi soldier and the words, “Join the HSS! John Ashcroft Wants You.”

Carl Rosenstein, owner of the gallery, which frequently has exhibits on social, cultural and political issues, had anticipated the problem, because in the 2000 presidential election, when there was an anti-death-penalty exhibit in the gallery, poll workers covered some of the artwork.

So the week before the election last November, Rosenstein, a member of the Downtown Independent Democrats, sent a letter to Steve Richmond, counsel to the Board of Elections, advising him of the exhibit and inviting election inspectors to see it before Election Day.

“There is no mention of any political candidate or political parties. Both candidates [George W. Bush and John Kerry] support the war and the Patriot Act so it is impossible to find any electioneering in the show,” Rosenstein said in the letter, adding that while there were several posters that lampooned John Ashcroft and Homeland Security, “The exhibit is fully protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

Rosenstein said last week that two Board of Elections representatives — one Democratic and the other Republican — came to the gallery three or four days before the election and agreed that the exhibit did not violate the law prohibiting electioneering at the polls. “I put all my cards on the table,” Rosenstein said last week.

But Skyler was outraged when he came to vote on Election Day morning and made a formal complaint to poll workers. Apparently feeling that discretion was the better part of valor, Rosenstein later in the day covered the poster mentioning Ashcroft.
“It [the Ashcroft poster] was there when I voted,” Skyler told The Villager last week in a phone interview. “The gallery may be a great asset to the community but it clearly violated the election law. Freedom of speech is a precious right but voting rights are also precious and the rules against electioneering at the polls protect all voters,” he said.

Regarding the apparent approval by two Board of Elections inspectors three days before the election, Skyler said of Rosenstein, “He tried to dupe the inspectors and it’s outrageous.” Rosenstein, however, said the inspectors reviewed and signed off on the same artwork that was on the gallery walls on Election Day morning.

On the other side, Sean Sweeney, president of Downtown Independent Democrats and director of the Soho Alliance neighborhood group, also said, “It’s outrageous” — but in reference to removing the Puffin Room polling site.

Sweeney insisted last week that the action was an infringement of free speech and contended that Mayor Bloomberg prompted Skyler’s initiative. “He’s Bloomberg’s press secretary,” Sweeny reasoned. “I can’t believe he’d get so upset — maybe because I do consider Ashcroft a Nazi,” he added. “Does this mean you can’t criticize any appointee of a candidate?” he went on.

David Reck, Democratic district co-leader, said the Puffin Room has been a neighborhood polling place since 1996. “If the Board of Elections had a problem with the exhibit, they should have made that known before the election and we would have been ready to do what’s necessary,” Reck said.

Before the Puffin Room entered a contract with the Board of Elections, Soho voters had to go across town to the Civil Court at 111 Centre St. across from the Criminal Courts. That site, however, was a clear violation of the rules that say the polls must be within or adjacent to each election district. Kathryn Freed, who then was a city councilmember representing Soho and now sits on the Civil Court bench, initiated the move to the Puffin Room voting site.

Since the polls moved to the Puffin Room, voting in the five election districts served by the poll site has increased dramatically, Sweeney said. “Where else can we vote?” he asked. “Would Armani or any of the other upscale retailers in the district accept a contract with the Board of Elections?” he quipped.

Reck vowed that Democrats would take the case to court if the Board of Elections doesn’t find an alternative site within the legal boundaries. “If there’s a problem with a specific work of art, let’s correct the problem,” he added.

But Rosenstein was not in a compliant mood last week. “I didn’t intend to create a controversy, but now that we’re confronted, I’m standing on the First Amendment right and the conviction that this doesn’t violate the election law,” he said.

Norman Siegel, a civil liberties lawyer who is seeking the Democratic nomination for public advocate, agreed that First Amendment issues might be involved. “I’d have to look into the election site policy — Does it have to be totally neutral? How does it deal with religious displays in polling sites in churches? Then I could decide if the policy is constitutional or not,” Siegel said.

John Ravitz, executive director of the Board of Elections and a Republican, was adamant last week that the board would find another site that complies with the law. Regarding the inspectors’ signing off on the Puffin Room exhibit last November, Ravitz said he wasn’t notified about it at the time. “The gallery may display whatever it likes, but by May 1 we’ll find a polling site where voters won’t find those types of distractions,” Ravitz said.

The Board of Elections has Democratic and Republican commissioners for each borough. Douglas Kellner, the Democratic Board of Elections commissioner for Manhattan, said last week that he felt it necessary to agree with his Republican counterpart, Frederick Umane, that the Puffin Room would no longer be the Soho polling site. “It was for the good of bipartisan administration of elections,” he said, “If either party has an objection to a polling site, the other side owes the courtesy of an accommodation.”

But Kellner acknowledged that finding an alternative would be difficult in a district where there are no public schools. “While I’ll defer to a reasonable objection, the board will have to propose an alternative that is legal,” he said.

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