On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Mayor Bill de Blasio, First Lady Chirlane McCray, and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza welcomed a civil rights icon to the New-York Historical Society for a workshop about teaching civics.

Congressman John Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders and a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, stood before a rapt audience of 250 educators and students recalling the battles he fought against segregation and Jim Crow laws—and why civic education is still so important today.

“People couldn't register to vote,” said Lewis. “People were asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap, the number of jellybeans in a jar. We had to change that. And we have made changes. But there are still changes to be made.”

Praising the city’s dedication to civic education, New-York Historical Society President Louise Mirrer told teachers, “It is your commitment to conveying the true values of our American democracy that forms the backbone of our public schools.”

But the New-York Historical Society’s own commitment to democracy does not appear to have the same degree of “backbone.” Last year, when New-York Historical was asked to open its doors to voters as a poll site, it was among dozens of institutions that said no.
Listen to Brigid Bergin’s story on WNYC:

In April 2019, the museum, which is tax exempt, sent a formal objection to the New York City Board of Elections. In the letter, the museum’s second in command wrote that being a poll site “unreasonably interferes” with the usual activities in the building.

“The New-York Historical Society has already planned major events with hundreds of people on June 25th and November 5th, 2019, which require unimpeded access to the first floor and the use of almost the entire building,” wrote Jennifer Schantz, the museum’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, referring to last year’s primary and general election dates. “Cancellation of these events would impose a major hardship on the event hosts and on the New-York Historical Society.”

Museum spokeswoman Ines Aslan told Gothamist/WNYC that the Historical Society would have loved to host voting, “since it aligns with our institutional mission,” but noted that the facility was already booked when the Board made its request last March. “We hope to be reconsidered as a site in the future, and if that's the case, that we will be notified with enough time so we can plan accordingly,” Aslan said in an email.

The New-York Historical Society was not alone. In response to a Freedom of Information Law request, the city Board of Elections provided Gothamist/WNYC with 52 letters from organizations that objected to being designated a poll site. Those objecting included The Met Museum, Lincoln Center, even the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building. What these sites, and 41 of the other objecting sites have in common: they all receive benefits on their property tax bills. (Scroll down to see the list of organizations we obtained.)

Based on a WNYC analysis, the city is forgoing more than $580 million dollars in property tax revenue annually from institutions unwilling to open their doors to voters. And that’s not including any other public money they receive.

Under election law, those public benefits come with strings attached: if a building or institution gets something like a tax exemption or a city grant, it is legally on the hook to provide space for voters. If they object, the law says those benefits can be withheld. But elections officials say it would require a lawsuit to force some of the objecting institutions to step up.

If last year exposed the added challenge of finding space for early voting then the question becomes: where will voters go in 2020, a year of multiple elections and anticipated high turnout?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was another one of the organizations that objected to hosting a poll site, describing the prospect as “an extreme hardship.” Its landmarked Fifth Avenue building is over two million square feet and spans four city blocks. The city BOE proposed using the staff cafeteria as a possible poll site.

“The staff cafeteria is not open to visitors and is used daily by the 2,200 museum employees for meals and breaks,” wrote Thomas Schuler, Chief Government Affairs Officer at the museum. He added, “Locating a poll site in this space will be disruptive and an inconvenience since many employees have limited time away from their desks.”

A spokesman for the museum confirmed that it’s not logistically possible for The Met Museum to host a poll site, in part, because they host hundreds of educators for training on art education on Election Day.

The American Museum of Natural History also said that being a poll site would cause an “unmanageable impact.” In its cancellation request, it noted that their cafeteria has a liquor license to sell beer and election law states that no place where alcohol is sold can be used for voting.

The only eligible buildings that cannot object to being designated a poll site under state law are public schools.

That’s largely why the city BOE designated 33 schools out of its 61 early-voting sites in 2019. The process often involved taking over cafeterias or gymnasiums for 11 days (nine days of early voting and two days to set up and break down), angering some parents and educators.

“I have to say that as a parent at [PS] 116, if people want to see what unreasonable interference with operations really means, they should have come to my school for early voting,” said Michael Argilla, whose daughter is a student at the Murray Hill elementary school. “It was insane,” he added.

Unlike a general election in November, when schools are closed, the early voting period included five days when school was in session. At PS 116, kids had to use a different entrance, and the play yard, gym and cafeteria were all unavailable to educators and students.

Last month, the de Blasio administration provided the city BOE with a list of 53 sites to replace the schools used during last year’s early voting period. While election law gives locals Board until March to designate poll sites, city BOE anticipate selecting sites sooner since there special election for Queens Borough President is scheduled for March 24 and the Democratic presidential primary is April 28.

In response to lobbying from local parents, State Senator Liz Krueger introduced a bill that passed the State Senate last week that would prohibit public schools from being used during early voting. It also explicitly obligates buildings that receive state tax exemptions or more than a million dollars in annual state grant funding be used for voting unless the owner can demonstrate that the entity's function is significantly incompatible with operating as a polling place.

The bill would also repeal the prohibition preventing a poll site from being designated at a location where there is a liquor license. The bill still needs to pass the Assembly and would need to be signed by the governor to take effect.

But that wouldn’t solve the larger issue: people still need places to vote. And institutions don’t feel obligated to open their doors, despite what the law says. Testifying at a state legislative hearing on early voting in November, City Board of Elections Executive Director Mike Ryan pleaded with lawmakers to help them access more spaces for poll sites.

“We cannot do it all by ourselves. It’s impossible,” said Ryan, “We can only designate those sites that we have legal authority to designate,” he added.

While it wasn’t easy, there were cultural institutions that made it work last fall. The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria was one of the 14 early voting sites in Queens. It was the first time in the museum’s 30 years of existence it had been called on to be a poll site, according to Carl Goodman, the museum’s executive director.

Goodman said that when the museum was presented with its obligation under state election law, as a private nonprofit operating out of a city-owned building on city-owned land, he cooperated.

“We immediately girded our loins and prepared for something that hasn’t been done in New York ever, let alone at the Museum,” said Goodman. “In the end, I think it turned out to be a very unintentionally innovative decision.”

Would they want to do it again? Goodman’s not sure yet, and the BOE has not yet announced what sites they plan to use in the upcoming elections. Still he’s pleased with what they were able to do the first time around, “I’m just so proud of my colleagues here at the museum who could have complained to the high heavens but instead really locked in and figured out something that could work.”

And as more attention is being paid to institutions shirking their civic duty, others are signaling a willingness to step up. After our inquiry to Lincoln Center, their spokeswoman said they would be open to making the atrium on the campus available at least for voter registration.

“We’ve looked at the letter since we received your inquiry and what wasn’t considered at the time was the David Rubenstein Atrium,” said Leah Johnson, chief communications and marketing officer for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “The atrium provides the opportunity to potentially accommodate a request in a very publicly accessible venue,” Johnson added. (Johnson is a member of New York Public Radio’s Board of Trustees, which oversees Gothamist and WNYC.)

That’s the type of awakening to civic obligation that Ryan hopes happens in more places.

“We want to be in places that want us because like every relationship, that's the best way to be in it,” said Ryan, “Not so much a voluntary relationship, but certainly a willing relationship and a spirit of cooperation.”

Brigid Bergin is the City Hall and politics reporter for WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @brigidbergin.