Election season is finally over, but not without some drama at one polling place in Kingsbridge.
Tuesday morning, police and election officials — including the executive director of the elections board — converged on the community center at Fort Independence Houses all because one polling site coordinator refused to allow media entry to cover the voting process.
Would-be voters had to snake their way through what ultimately was a standoff between election officials that finally ended when the coordinator of the 3340 Bailey Ave., location, Paulette Dildy, was escorted off the site.
The kerfuffle centered around The Riverdale Press wanting to shoot pictures inside the polling place. While cameras are typically prohibited from polling sites, credentialed media can take certain photos, as long as they possess a letter from city elections board executive director Michael Ryan.
When reporters arrived at Fort Independence Houses on Tuesday morning, they had that letter in-hand. But Dildy was having none of it.
“Is it from Mr. Ryan at the board of elections?” she asked. “It’s null and void. There’s nothing you can do but go by the rules. I’m not losing my job.”
Moments later, New York Police Department Det. Juan Arango, who was serving as an off-duty police presence at the precinct, told the reporters they could interview people, but couldn’t take pictures.
Dildy claimed she’d received orders not to allow cameras or photography at the polling site. Later, she said, “I’m a babushka and you got to understand, we teach our children this, too — I can’t break my boss’s rules to follow your boss’s rules.”
Yet, Dildy refused to speak to any elections officials — including executive assistant Kristin Strandberg — called to verify The Press had permission to shoot there
“Why waste my time, and why waste her time?” Dildy said. “I can’t change the rules.”
Within an hour, Ryan himself had traveled from Brooklyn to Fort Independence Houses to deal with Dildy. He told The Press when he arrived that while generally, media access to polling sites in New York City goes smoothly, every once in a while something goes wrong.
“It doesn’t happen across the board, but it happens,” Ryan said. “Last year, we had a lot of international press, and a Japanese reporter who wanted to do a story on what a good job we do in conducting the elections in other languages. (One of the polling coordinators) wouldn’t let him.”
The added restrictions on taking photos came because smartphone technology continued to improve, Dildy said, and that voters could lose their privacy when it comes to who they cast their ballot for.
“People stand over there by the scanner, and you could walk up, zoom in, take a picture and know who they’re voting for,” she said.
The Press reporters spent much of the morning standing outside the community center on the cold concrete under a darkening fall sky. While they were out there, one of the poll workers supervised by Dildy, Renee Mitchell, came out to try and collect names of the media present.
“I’d let y’all come in, but I’m just a worker bee,” she said. “It’s so unfortunate, (and) I don’t get it, because you’d give us good press.”
Mitchell said she’d only met Dildy a few years ago there at the precinct. Yet, she holds no sway over the decisions of supervisors.
“We’re just the Indians,” Mitchell said, referring to herself and her precinct colleagues.
This isn’t the first time The Press has run into issues covering this particular precinct. During the September primaries, Dildy — who at the time refused to give her name — stonewalled reporters at the Fort Independence Houses community center for more than an hour.
Just as she did this time around, Dildy questioned the validity of the elections board letter authorizing press coverage at the precinct.
“I could have made this letter, anyone can make a letter,” she said at the time. “I have to call this in, I am not going to lose my job. They told us in the training there are no pictures, and this letter seems very hypocritical.”
Poll workers are required to go through training ahead of an election cycle where they learn not only how to manage a polling site, but also how to deal with extra-curriculars, like media showing up.
When Ryan arrived on Tuesday, he had to brace himself before walking into the community center.
“I’m going to try to do it the nice way,” he said.
“If that works, God bless. If not, I’m going to do it the not-nice way. We’re going to rectify all of this.”
Moments later, Ryan was back outside.
“We’ll take care of this the other way,” he said.
Within 15 minutes, Dildy was shown the door herself.
It’s not clear what Dildy’s job status is with the elections board, and she would not comment after she departed. Ryan informed those remaining at the polling precinct that while regular voters can’t take pictures, members of the press could, so long as they possessed the clearance letter signed by him.
“We don’t necessarily want them here, but they are allowed,” he said.
Despite what happened at Fort Independence Houses, Ryan stressed that this was the exception, not the norm.
“This is not the way it usually works,” he said. “What’re you gonna do? It is what it is.”