Late Effort to Disenfranchise 37,000 Voters Fails in Philadelphia

Philadelphia Daily News

GOP fails in effort to move polls

Last-minute bid tried to relocate 63 mostly black polling places

By CHRIS BRENNAN, Philadelphia Daily News

REPUBLICAN OPERATIVES working to re-elect President Bush submitted last-minute requests in Philadelphia on Friday to relocate 63 polling places.

Bush’s Pennsylvania campaign staff filed the requests, using the names of two Republicans running for the U.S. Congress and seven Republican ward leaders.

Of the 63 requests for changes, 53 are in political divisions where the population of white voters is less than 10 percent.

“I think this is more evidence of Republicans working to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters,” said Mark Nevins, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. John Kerry. “It’s despicable.”

Bob Lee, voter registration administrator for the City Commission, said the requests appear to be “discriminatory” and were filed too late to be eligible for a hearing on Wednesday.

“They’re trying to suppress the vote,” Lee said of Republicans.

Deborah Williams, a minister running against Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, said the Republican State Committee asked if it could use her name in the effort.

One of the polling places is in a district office of state Sen. Vince Fumo, a Democrat. Two are in local bars, 43 are allegedly inaccessible to the handicapped and 17 are in businesses or homes where voters could be intimidated, according to the requests.

“We’re more concerned about people’s comfort,” said Williams, an African-American whose name is on 28 requests. “This is not about creating some stir in the election or denying anyone the right to vote.”

Race played a role in at least five of the requests, according to Matt Robb, the Republican leader of the 48th ward in South Philadelphia. Robb said he allowed his name to be used because those polling places are in neighborhoods he doesn’t wish to visit.

“It’s predominantly, 100 percent black,” said Robb, who is white. “I’m just not going in there to get a knife in my back.”

The polling places are all in political divisions where Democrats hold an overwhelming advantage among registered voters.

Listervelt Ritter, the Republican leader for the 16th ward in North Philadelphia, said he participated in the effort on four requests because he is tired of polling places controlled by Democrats and the fraud that he claims results. Ritter, an African-American, denied any attempt to suppress minority votes.

“The black neighborhoods are the ones that do the funny stuff,” Ritter said. “What are you supposed to do?”

Stewart Bolno, running against Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, said he got a phone call last week from a Republican in Lancaster whose name he could not remember, asking to use his name on the requests.

Bolno, whose name is on 14 of the requests, said he doesn’t see a problem with improving access to polling places.

“Clearly I’m against any kind of discrimination or bigotry, that’s for sure,” Bolno said. “We are unfortunately in a situation where both parties are seeking an advantage in a political season.”

More than 37,000 people are registered to vote in the 63 divisions as Democrats, Republicans, independents and others.

Lee, who has worked for the commission for 21 years, said he became suspicious of the requests because of the last-minute timing, the unusually high number and the locations.

Lee said local Republicans would know better than to try to submit so many polling place changes so late in the game.

Any registered voter can request a location change for one of the 1,681 polling place in the city.

Requests are sent to hearings before the City Commission after public notices are posted for five days at the polling place, the proposed new polling place and three other places in the division.

Lee said the City Commission on Wednesday will hold its last hearing on polling place changes before the Nov. 2 election.

Since the requests came in on Friday afternoon, he said, there is not time for the public notices.

The requests could potentially confuse voters. The city has already ordered postcards mailed to 1.1 million registered voters before Election Day, directing them to polling places.


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