Chester voting sites challenged

CHESTER -- The Chester County Election Commission's decision to combine some polling sites for the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries has sparked a backlash from some local black leaders who claim the move will deter black and elderly voters from going to the polls.

But the commission's director, who is black, refutes that idea and insists the move will save taxpayers more than $26,000.

"I personally take it as an insult (the allegations) that my office, the staff or the commission would in any way try to deter or alter the African-Americans' right to vote," director Earl Moore said. "I think the simple fact that I'm in this position should give some peace of mind to African-Americans that we are sensitive to the needs of the black community."

People such as the Rev. Bill Stringfellow disagree. Stringfellow, president of the Chester branch of the NAACP, and other local leaders fear the move is 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 election commission this week, residents in Chester Wards 1, 2 and 4 would vote at the Ward 3 polling site, the only one of those wards where white voters outnumber black voters.

Stringfellow said just getting people to vote is difficult enough without making them drive farther.

"It inconveniences a lot of people going to the polls, and it's going to confuse a lot of people," he said.

Chester City Councilwoman Annie Reid, who represents Ward 3, echoed those thoughts.

"Change is just difficult for people, especially the elderly and those that don't have transportation," said Reid, who is black. "It will cause confusion. It's not going to be easy."

Contrary to what some believe, Moore said combining the polls isn't permanent -- it's just for the presidential primaries.

He also 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. In April, he gave his budget to the county. The primary dates weren't finalized until September.

"The county gave me enough money to do one election," he said. "But they didn't give me enough money to do two because we didn't think we were going to have to do two. ... There's no way you could budget for them. You just have to take an estimated guess."

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 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 resident complaints to the U.S. Department of Justice, Moore said, Baldwin Mill and Eureka were moved back to their original sites. Rossville also was returned to its polling place.

As for the concerns about Chester residents being forced to drive farther, Moore said he drove the routes Wednesday afternoon and the merger means Wards 1, 2 and 4 will have less than a mile of extra travel.

The move impacts 2,386 black voters and 1,513 white voters in those four wards.

"Not only will African-Americans have to drive to the changes in the polling place, so will the Caucasians," he said.

Makeda Baker, a community activist who lives in predominantly black Ward 4, said Moore met with her Ward 4 East Chester Community Group Association on Tuesday to discuss concerns about the move.

"There was an air of suspiciousness," she said of the meeting. "I think given the history, not only of Chester and South Carolina but for this country in general, I think any and all suspicions are valid, are warranted and either must be proven true or proven false."

Moore said concerns about the move insult blacks' intelligence.

"I don't see the logic," he said. "This is 2007. I feel as though the African-American community is a viable part of society. ... I'm tired of the people trying to display African-Americans as ignorant."

Stringfellow said he complained to the Department of Justice about the issue. Moore said he also talked to that federal agency, providing the details he hopes will alleviate any concerns.

Moore said the Justice Department must approve the consolidation.

Jodi Bobb, a Justice Department representative, declined to comment about the matter.