My corner of Chester County doesn't make national news too often, but it did on Election Day 2008.
Voters trying to cast ballots in Lower Oxford Township East stood in lines for so long that TV crews showed up to capture the scene. Some of those waiting ordered out for pizza. Sympathetic neighbors brought water and coffee. When the last vote was cast shortly before 11 p.m., polls were officially closing on the West Coast and Barack Obama had already been declared the winner.
Some of the 1,440 who voted there that day waited for seven to eight hours in the rain, queuing up close enough to working railroad tracks to reach out and touch passing freight cars. The tiny community center they waited to enter could accommodate only seven booths and one optical scanner. The adjacent parking lot was big enough for a dozen cars.
This wasn't a mistake. It was deliberate. It was the clearest example you could hope to find of partisan politics trumping common sense and civic duty.
The key detail about this is that the precinct in question includes Lincoln University, the nation's oldest black college, home to roughly 1,600 students. This is the largest bloc of African American voters in any precinct in predominantly white, Republican Chester County. Blacks tend to vote Democratic. Republicans don't mind making it harder for them to cast ballots.
This kind of political chicanery is standard fare, of course, but it assumes an uglier cast when race enters the story. The two Republican commissioners responsible, Carol Aichele and Terence Farrell, were clearly motivated by politics, not race (Farrell is black, and his parents both taught at Lincoln), but there is an ugly undercurrent to this whole affair with deeper historical roots.
Everybody who lives out my way knew voting in that precinct would be a nightmare in 2008, because it had been a problem for years, and because Obama's presence on the ballot had excited a surge in voter registration on Lincoln's campus, as it had on campuses all over the United States. Take a funnel already filled to the brim that feeds through a pinhole, pour still more fluid into it, and watch what happens.
Which is why hundreds of voters six weeks earlier had petitioned the three-member Chester County Board of Commissioners (sitting in their capacity as the Election Board) to shift the polling place. They told of the hours-long waits at that polling place in previous elections. They offered an easy alternative: Lincoln's gymnasium, which has a huge well-lighted parking lot and an entrance right off of Baltimore Pike, one of the precinct's main thoroughfares. Because the largest bloc of voters in the precinct lives at Lincoln, it would make sense, they argued, for the polling place to be on campus.
It would not have even been new. Dorothea Murray, an 82-year-old Democratic committeewoman, reminded the board that elections had been held at that gym until 1992. Why was it moved? Because there's a stubborn core of racism and racial fear in our rural community, and some of our neighbors voice fear about venturing onto Lincoln's campus. There aren't enough of these people to matter, but couple their complaints with the insuperable political logic, and you have a groundswell.
The hearing in September 2008 was an exercise in dancing around the issue. Everybody knew how it would turn out before it even began, what with two Republican commissioners and just one Democrat, Kathi Cozzone. The case for moving the polling place was overwhelming. Past problems and the evident logic of big gym vs. tiny community center needed little explanation beyond pointing at photographs and maps.
One woman spoke against the move, complaining that she had once been harassed by a security guard at Lincoln, but she conceded later in the hearing that she generally found the campus a "friendly" place. The heavy lifting against the proposal was done by Aichele and Farrell. They lamented that the petition should have been raised earlier, argued that the 18 steps to the gym were too difficult for the elderly to mount - Murray said she managed it with ease - and worried about handicap accessibility even though the gym is fully accessible.
The vote went as expected, and the ploy worked exactly as intended. Locals who saw the huge lines and long waits didn't bother voting. Turnout for the precinct was just under 56 percent, compared with an average of almost 80 percent in the rest of the county. It was the lowest percentage of votes cast in all of Chester County. The lowest percentage of votes was cast in the precinct with the county's largest concentration of black voters. This in an election where black voters, particularly young black voters, turned out in record numbers.
It's a disgrace. A coalition of civil rights groups has filed a lawsuit against the Chester County board, claiming that it unlawfully deprived Lincoln students of their right to vote. The county has asked for the suit to be dismissed, arguing, in essence, that the decision was made lawfully. No one dares argue any more that the community center is an adequate polling place, so the board voted last year to move it, not to the Lincoln gym, but to the Township Building three miles away.
The commissioners declined to discuss the matter with me, citing the lawsuit, although none was willing to talk to reporters about it before the suit was filed. No wonder. You can't defend something like this. It remains to be seen whether Aichele and Farrell have violated federal law, but they're clearly in violation of basic fairness and good citizenship.
The real reason they want to discourage Lincoln voters is fear. The next election for county commissioners is in 2011. The campus should mark its calendar.