Kutztown University’s students just got quite a civics lesson.
The university has long been the site of the polling location for Maxatawny Township’s 3rd precinct, but that changed on Aug. 8 when the County Commissioners voted to move the location to the township building located about four miles away. The new polling place is on Quarry Road, a country road with no sidewalks or lighting, but lots of quarry truck traffic.
What precipitated this change remains a mystery. The commissioners voted to approve the move on the recommendation of Debbie Olivieri, Director of Election Services. When we pressed for reasons, the responses seemed to change from day to day. They said the university moved the polling location from its designated spot. There’s no record of that. They said that state law says voting should take place in public buildings. Kutztown University is a state-run university with a deed held by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Hard to get much more public than that.
We were also told that Election Services had received complaints over the years. We asked Election Services for more details, only to find that there are no documented complaints. We asked Kutztown University about complaints they’d been asked to address by Election Services and there were none. In fact, the University was blindsided by the report in the newspaper that the location had been moved.
From the start, the decision appeared to be bad bureaucracy. A five-day public comment period is required before a polling location can be moved, so Election Services announced it with a notice posted at the university field house on Friday, Aug. 2, when the school was all but deserted and many township residents were on vacation. They also posted the notice at the township building, Valentino’s Restaurant, the Airport Diner, and a crystal shop that is open 18 hours a week. They did NOT post notices in the two large grocery stores, local banks, or any other more frequented establishments, nor did they wait a few weeks for the Kutztown University community to return to campus.
Not surprisingly, they received no comments, so the commissioners voted to approve the move on Aug. 8 and residents started receiving the mandated notifications of the move in the mail the next day, meaning that the letters were signed, sealed and ready to go as soon as the vote was cast. Incidentally, the rules state that the “landlord” needs to be notified in advance of a move, but the university received no such notification.
Lacking any reasons for the move that hold up to even the slightest scrutiny, many have suspected something much worse than bad bureaucracy. What is happening at the 3rd precinct is reminiscent of the stories of voter suppression out of North Carolina. To make matters worse, Shippensburg University lost its polling location earlier this year. And all of this comes as voter ID is still a hotly debated subject.
Those of us who spoke at the Commissioners’ Board and Election Board meetings in favor of keeping a polling location at Kutztown University presented more substantive arguments and provided more documentation in making our case than Election Services provided in making theirs. In the end, however, the commissioners stood by their vote, this time 2 – 1.
The one complaint we heard anecdotally from the county was that people objected to long lines at the polling place. How does moving a polling place from one location to another solve the problem of long lines unless you know that the move is going to result in lower turnout? That’s voter suppression.
Nobody questions the fact that Election Services has surely received complaints over the years. But which complaints rise to the level of prompting changes that will disenfranchise voters, lots of them? When is it fair to reasonably say that all possible solutions have failed and that risking disenfranchising voters is the only option?
The commissioners called their first vote perfunctory. They didn’t ask Olivieri the questions above. They didn’t demand documentation of complaints or attempts to resolve them. Voter suppression is a loaded term, but it simply means taking conscious action that will result in lower turnout and that’s what the commissioners voted to do. Twice.
Karen Feridun, President, Kutztown Area Democratic Club and Berks Democratic Committeewoman, Kutztown 2nd precinct.