Accusations fly as GOP seeks to shift polling places

Posted: October 19, 2004

A last-minute Republican effort to relocate 63 Philadelphia polling places has sparked outrage from Democrat John Kerry's presidential campaign, which says the choice of locations in heavily African American neighborhoods shows that the GOP wants to suppress black voter turnout.

But the Republicans said the real outrage is the state of the polling places they want to change - many of them in bars, homes or vacant buildings.

The challenges, filed late Friday, appear to have little chance of succeeding. Philadelphia voter-registration administrator Bob Lee said the late date of the Republicans' filing means that there is not sufficient time to post the proposed changes for the legally mandated five days before a hearing. Tomorrow is the last day that the city commissioners, who administer elections, can order a move.

"They were submitted too late for us to have a hearing," Lee said.

Christian Marrone, counsel to the state Republican campaign, said, in that event, the GOP would appeal to Common Pleas Court. He said the commissioners' deadline "was news to us." And he criticized Lee for making critical comments about the petitions before a hearing.

Whatever eventually happens, the Republican effort has become furious political theater two weeks before the election. As with so many such issues in Philadelphia, it turns on issues of race and allegations of corruption.

To Democrats, the fact that nearly all of the challenged locations are in heavily African American parts of North, West and South Philadelphia suggests a racial motivation. All but four of the voting divisions in question have black or Latino majorities, according to city records.

"I've never witnessed a more wanton example of an effort to discourage minority voters from participating in an election," Kerry campaign spokesman Mark Nevins said. "It's despicable."

Nevins said that a last-minute move could confuse voters accustomed to voting at the existing locations, thus suppressing turnout. Polls say Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes are up for grabs, meaning that anything that affects turnout could make a difference.

Nevins noted that many of the locations had housed polls for years, and he questioned the late timing of the GOP's effort.

But to Republicans, who held a news conference yesterday outside a South Philadelphia bar that serves as a polling place, the status quo is a system geared to help an entrenched Democratic majority. With so much national attention on Democratic complaints about voting practices, the effort is an opportunity for Republicans to air their own voting gripes.

"Why are they forcing any citizen of this city to vote in an area that is not accessible to the handicapped or disabled, where someone may feel intimidated?" asked Deborah Williams, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, who said she signed 28 of the challenge petitions after being asked to do so by representatives of the state GOP.

She said the timing stemmed from Republicans' trying to work with the most up-to-date list of locations.

Williams, who is black, said it was ironic that Republicans were being called racist for trying to improve polling places where African Americans vote.

Residents on the 1900 block of South 23d Street did not share her views about voting at the My Way II bar.

"It's no problem," said Yolanda Davis, 26, a construction worker. Davis said liquor was never served during voting, as the law requires.

Mary Anderson, the bar's owner, said she had turned her facility over to election workers until polls closed on Election Day during the three years her bar had served as a polling place.

Lee said bars like Anderson's were also used as polling places in neighborhoods where the GOP had made no effort to move locations.

"They're in funeral parlors, pizza shops - you name it, they're out there," Lee said. "We take any building we can in a division. And we try to keep it in a division for a good, strong, valid reason: This is a city of neighborhoods, and most people walk to vote."

Contact staff writer Michael Currie Schaffer at 215-854-4565 or mcschaffer@phillynews.com.

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