GOP goes to court to cover Obama mural at polling site

A poll worker , right, goes over a sample ballot with a voter, that is plastered over a mural of President Barak Obama in the voting area of polling place # 3518 at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School. A mural of President Barak Obama had to be covered in the school cafeteria of Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, after Republicans got a judge to issue an order that it must be covered so those people voting could not see the President's image as they waited to vote. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
A poll worker , right, goes over a sample ballot with a voter, that is plastered over a mural of President Barak Obama in the voting area of polling place # 3518 at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School. A mural of President Barak Obama had to be covered in the school cafeteria of Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, after Republicans got a judge to issue an order that it must be covered so those people voting could not see the President's image as they waited to vote. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 07, 2012

Polling locations are supposed to be nonpartisan. But at one Northeast Philadelphia school, where a large Barack Obama mural stands in the midst of where voters cast their ballots, members of the state's Republican party quickly cried foul today.

At the Benjamin Franklin Elementary school on Rising Sun Avenue, in the city's Crescentville section, a large Barack Obama mural is painted on a wall that stands behind two voting booths. The 2008 Obama campaign symbol and the words "change and hope" are prominently featured, along with a quote from Obama.

Five voting divisions in the 35th Ward vote in the school. The divisions long have used the school and moved into the large ground floor cafeteria three years ago.

The Obama mural - next to a similar depiction and quote from Oprah Winfrey - was on the wall three years ago when voting began in the cafeteria, said Tom Justice, the judge of elections for the 18th division, whose voting machines stood in front of the Obama mural.

Justice, a Republican, said no one had complained about the mural in the past three years.

"It's never been an issue because (Obama) has never been on the ballot," he said.

Today, however, the mural was the source of considerable attention in the media - the Drudge Report featured it - and sparked a heated court battle.

Republican Party of Pennsylvania Chairman Rob Gleason released a statement accusing the Obama campaign of trying to suppress Republican votes.

"It is clear the Obama campaign has taken their campaign in the gutter to manipulate this election however they can," the statement said. "Based on the Obama campaign's behavior today, it certainly raises the question: what are Democrats doing in the polls that they are working so hard to shield folks from monitoring this election?"

According to records at the polling place, the 18th Division of the 35th Ward has 566 registered voters, 27 of whom are Republicans.

Around 1 p.m., a Philadelphia court ordered that the mural be covered up in its entirety with "blank paper or other similar material so that the content of the mural is invisible in its entirety for the duration of the election on November 6, 2012," according to Gleason.

At 2:15 p.m., Jonathan Goldstein, a lawyer for the Republican State Committee, went before Common Pleas Court President Pamela Pryor Dembe complaining that the earlier order to cover the mural was not fully complied with.

"It's covered, look," interupted deputy city commissioner Fred Voigt, holding up a cell phone showing the mural partially covered up.

Goldstein said poll workers had only covered up Obama's face and campaign insignia with poster board.

Voigt said workers were in the process of covering up the rest of the mural and the court order would be complied with.

Under election law, a sheriff's deputy is assigned to personally serve the order.

Judge Dembe tried to calm the escalating debate, saying to Goldstein: "I find it ludicrous to think that somebody's vote is going to be changed by a mural on the wall. So curb your enthusiasm if you will."

By mid-afternoon Obama's face and name had been covered up by poll workers who used sample ballots and sheets of bilingual voting instructions.

Justice said he felt that was adequate.According to Adam Bonin, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee, it is the responsibilty of the local judge of elections assigned to the elementary school polling place to cover a mural or any other item that has a partisan message.

Bonin agreed that it was a mistake in judgment by the local judge not to cover up the mural. Bonin said the state Democatic Party agreed the mural should be hidden from public view as long as the polls are open.

Justice, whose own daughter once attended the school, said he told his poll workers not to cover the mural in the morning because he was afraid that tape might damage the paint.

Other poll workers said students had painted - or at least help paint - the two murals, but there were no school officials on hand to confirm that.

Common Pleas Court Judge Milton Younge earlier in the day had signed an order in his chambers to cover the mural. The order was issued without a hearing because both parties agreed the mural was inappropriate.

Voters in the heavily Democratic section of the city, meanwhile, did not seem bothered by the mural.

Kiara Brown, a 23-year-old voter, asked her friends to snap her picture with it.

"It's the only time I'll ever get my picture with the president," she said.

Poll-watcher Steve Buck said turnout at the polling place has been brisk all day, and no one had mentioned the mural to him.

"Not even one person," Buck said.

Nancy Ramirez, a 48-year-old housekeeper who lives nearby and was working as a Spanish-language interpreter at the polls, said people seemed pleased by the mural.

"Most of the voters here are Democrats," she said.

Brown, who is unemployed, said she was a strong supporter of Obama.

"He's not going to cut off health care. He's for abortion and gay marriage. He supports the 47 percent," she said.

Brown said she didn't identify with Mitt Romney, and didn't trust him.

Retired PGW worker Alberto Colon, 56, also backed Obama.

"He's for the poor, and I'm not rich," Colon said.

Al Schmidt, the city's Republican election commissioner, said he was looking into the mural situation.

Typically, it's left to the local election board -- up to five people in each division, at least one of them elected by local voters in that division -- who decide how to set up their operations for Election Day, within the space assigned to them.


Contact Kristen Graham at kgraham@phillynews.com. Staff writers Allison Steele and Bob Warner contributed to this story.

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