Chesco polling place to relocate after lawsuit

Posted: August 11, 2010

A small but significant victory has been won by Chester County voters who waited for hours in the rain to take part in a historic presidential election.

They have persuaded county officials to move a polling place back to the campus of Lincoln University after a lawsuit arising from a chaotic Election Day in November 2008.

The county's decision to move the poll, announced Tuesday, was part of a settlement of a suit in which five voters claimed the Board of Elections had violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"We are delighted," said Michael Churchill, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, who represented the plaintiffs. "It is tragic that so many were prevented from voting - or inconvenienced - and it took a lawsuit to fix the problem."

A coalition of civil rights groups sued in federal court in January, alleging that voters in the Lower Oxford East District, which includes Lincoln University, were prevented from voting because of inadequate facilities at the Lincoln Community Association Building poll location.

The polling place had been moved from Lincoln's campus in the 1990s, sparking controversy. Democrats called the move a partisan and racially tinged effort by Republicans to cut turnout among African American students who tended to vote Democratic. The Lower Oxford-East Republican Committee had asked that the site be relocated, citing safety concerns on Lincoln's 422-acre campus.

On Election Day in 2008, lines at the small community center were so long throughout the day that many waited for up to seven hours. Some stood in the rain and on nearby railroad tracks. Others left in frustration and didn't vote.

Five people sued: Wanda Havelow, Shanisha Smith, Aaron Lloyd, Darcel Jones, and Golden English.

Smith and Lloyd were Lincoln students.

English, 49, a county corrections officer, said he waited in line twice that day and finally gave up. In an interview Tuesday, he called missing the chance to vote for the nation's first black president a "frustrating experience that just wasn't right."

Several of his family members joined the line that evening and waited until after 10 p.m. to vote, English said. By then, Barack Obama was the projected winner.

About 131 million people - 63 percent of eligible voters - cast a ballot in that election. About 2,400 residents are registered to vote in the Lower Oxford East District.

Joel L. Frank, lawyer for defendants, said, "We're glad that both parties were able to reach a negotiated resolution," but he repeated what county officials have said from the start - that they did not discriminate against any voters.

Frank argued that the lines and delays at the community center building were a product of the unique circumstances of the 2008 election.

Chester County Commissioners Carol Aichele, Terence Farrell, and Kathi Cozzone; the county Board of Elections (which is made up of the commissioners); and James Forsythe, director of Chester County Voter Services, were originally named as defendants. The plaintiffs later agreed to drop all but the elections board from the suit.

Along with moving the polling location, the settlement calls for redrawing the voting district's boundaries.

In September 2008, residents concerned about the small size of the Lincoln Community Association Building petitioned to move the polling place back to Lincoln's campus in anticipation of a large voter turnout in the presidential race.

That petition was rejected by a 2-1 vote of the county commissioners, with Republicans Farrell and Aichele against the move and Democrat Cozzone in favor.

Another petition, submitted two months after the election, resulted in the polling place's being moved from the community association to the township building, which was a larger venue - but farther from Lincoln's campus.

Cozzone said in a statement on Tuesday that she had supported a move back to Lincoln all along, and that the elections board could have agreed to the move before the township was forced to defend itself against a suit.

In a separate statement, Aichele said she had opposed the move to Lincoln because the college's gym did not have handicapped access. That has since been remedied, Aichele said.

Farrell said his opposition was based on safety concerns. He said Tuesday in a statement that because the university has installed additional lighting, he believes the safety issues have been addressed.

Michael Hill, an executive vice president of Lincoln, said Tuesday that the college has always "maintained a safe campus," and added that the university is happy to offer its facilities as a polling place.

The Lower Oxford East polling location is scheduled to be moved back to Lincoln in time for November's election.


Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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