Volume 74, Number 28 | November 17 - 22, 2004

Wagging tails, not hanging chads, are latest election flap

By Lincoln Anderson

In the latest election controversy in this turbulent political season, Greenwich Village dog owners are saying that the Board of Elections is unfairly barring them from voting if they bring their pets with them.

In March, during the Democratic presidential primary, Wendy Schwartz, who votes at Wesbeth, called The Villager to say she wasn’t allowed to do so because she had her dog with her. She offered to pick up her dog as she had in the past when voting, but was turned away. As a result, her understanding was this was some kind of “new rule.”

Told about the incident, John Ravitz, executive director of the Board of Elections, at that time told The Villager’s Scoopy’s Notebook there’s no rule banning dogs from polling places. “You can bring a dog in,” he said then, adding that if he was provided the address of the polling site, he would call immediately and set the poll inspector straight. The Villager put Schwartz in touch with Ravitz and assumed the dog ban was lifted at the Westbeth polls.

However, two weeks ago, Eileen Blumenthal reported she had walked into the Westbeth polling place with her dog to vote in the presidential general election and was told she couldn’t.

Last week, Allen Roskoff, a veteran gay activist and a staff member of State Senator David Patterson, said he too had been challenged at Westbeth when he came in to vote holding his dachshund, Jonsey. Roskoff said the same woman who usually runs the polling site was telling everyone with dogs to leave.

“A lot of people were leaving,” Roskoff said. He said he “made an announcement” at the poll site, referring to the Scoopy’s Notebook item that had said it was legal for one to vote with a dog.

“I said, ‘Excuse me, everyone. The Elections commissioner was quoted in The Villager saying dogs are permitted.’ She said, ‘You can’t make an announcement,’ ” Roskoff said.

In the end, the poll supervisor allowed only Roskoff to vote, making all the other people with dogs leave.

“Maybe she knew who I was. One of the poll workers knew me — I think she said that I could cause trouble,” Roskoff said. “But I said, ‘Don’t make an exception for me.’ ”

Yet, dog owners say they have voted in previous years at Westbeth with their pooches in tow without incident.

“My dog’s 6 years old — I’ve never had a problem. I thought after your article we were safe,” Roskoff told The Villager.

However, if John Kerry has been accused of flip-flopping, it seems that on this issue Ravitz is doing the same. Asked last week about the latest Westbeth dogs-at-the-polls flare up, Ravitz gave a different answer.

Ravitz said other than dogs that assist voters, such as Seeing Eye dogs, canines are not permitted at the polls.

“As crazy as it sounds,” Ravitz said, voters could have adverse reactions to dogs, ranging from allergies to feeling intimidated, which would be “putting a barrier in the way of voters to vote.”

Told that in March he had said dogs could be brought to the polls and that he had even said he would call the Westbeth site to inform the supervisor there that dogs were allowed, he said that wasn’t right.

“No, no, no. You must have misunderstood me or I wasn’t clear enough,” Ravitz said. Asked if it would be O.K., perhaps, to carry small-breed dogs, Ravitz hedged, saying in that case it might be all right to “leave it up to the judgment of inspectors” — then quickly changed his mind and said no way.

“No, no, no, there’s no exceptions,” he said. Asked if there is a definitive rule on the books against dogs at the polls, Ravitz said, “It’s always definitive, I’m saying. If we had a misunderstanding on that….. We have a lot of issues trying to remove barriers [to vote],” Ravitz added, noting the main ones aren’t dogs but broken voting machines or voters not being listed in the books.

Yet at another Village polling site, P.S. 3 on Hudson St., dogs were plentiful on Election Day.

Former Democratic District Leader Aubrey Lees, as usual, came with her two dachshunds, Harry and Eli, and sat at a table, steering people to their election districts and handing out cookies she had bought.

“I think that’s terrible,” Lees said of the Westbeth flap. “There were a lot of dogs that were welcomed at P.S. 3. The point is to make it easy to vote. A lot of people take their pet for a walk and then vote while they’re out for a walk. People can’t tie up their dogs outside — that’s not right.”

As Lees spoke from her office, two sound machines were droning in the background to distract her dogs from barking at people outside.

“People really like it” to see dogs at the polls, Lees said. “And dog owners are generally responsible and keep them on a tight leash. It’s very popular to have dogs now. It makes people feel happy.”

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