CHESTER -- The Chester County Election Commission's decision to combine some polling sites for this month's South Carolina presidential primaries has been approved by the U.S. Justice Department, despite complaints from some local black leaders that the move would deter black and elderly residents from voting.
Those leaders feared the move was a tactic to dilute the black vote by forcing voters in predominantly black wards to drive to a predominantly white precinct to vote.
Under the plan approved by the Justice Department this week, residents in Chester Wards 1, 2 and 4 will vote at the Ward 3 polling site, the only one of those wards where white voters outnumber black voters.
But commission director Earl Moore has maintained the move had nothing to do with race. Moore, who is black, has said the decision to merge certain polling sites stemmed from the amount of money his office has available for the Jan. 19 Republican and Jan. 26 Democratic primaries.
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In April, he gave his budget to the county. The primary dates weren't finalized until September. He had money for one election, but not for two. Moore has insisted the shift won't be permanent -- just for these primaries.
A bill passed by the state Legislature in June allows a county to combine polling places to cut costs. Thus, Moore proposed that Baldwin Mill, Eureka and all four Chester wards vote at the Ward 3 site, the Ella Street building that houses the election commission office.
That site is a central location and should be convenient for voters, Moore has said. He noted that additional handicap parking spaces will be available on primary dates. Curbside voting for the disabled and elderly who can't make it to the polls also will be offered.
Along with the Chester sites, Moore suggested merging the Rossville and Beckhamville polling places with the three Great Falls sites and consolidating the Baton Rouge site with Wilkesburg.
But after early resident complaints to the Justice Department, Moore said, Baldwin Mill and Eureka were moved back to their original sites. Rossville also was returned to its polling place.
Moore said he received a letter from the Justice Department late Thursday afternoon giving final approval to the plans that drew criticism in November.
"I'm glad that the Justice Department rendered a decision," Moore said. "We thought all along that there was nothing that we did that was unethical or in any violation of the Section 5 voting right. We're just glad it has come to a conclusion and we can continue to prepare the elections for the citizens of Chester County."
But the Justice Department's approval of the plan doesn't settle well with some local black leaders.
Predominantly black churches throughout the county sent letters to the Justice Department about the issue and an official with the state chapter of the NAACP also supported local leaders' opposition to the move, said the Rev. Bill Stringfellow, president of the NAACP branch in Chester.
"I am very disappointed in the Justice Department," Stringfellow said. "They did what I figured they were going to do."
In York County, about 20 percent of the county's 63 polling locations will be combined with other voting locations as a temporary cost-saving measure for the presidential primaries.