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Pennsylvanians On Guard Against GOP Voter Suppression

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In 2000, it was Florida. In 2004, it was Ohio. This year, the war over vote counts and GOP suppression efforts seem to be shifting. Some analysts have called Colorado "the new Florida." But others are keeping their eyes trained on Pennsylvania.

Why else, given the poll numbers, is the McCain campaign wasting resources there in the final days of the election season? Poll tracking website FiveThirtyEight says Pennsylvania is a 99 percent lock for the Democrats at this point. Colorado, 97 percent. Florida, a 70 percent chance the Democrats will win. Even Arizona is now a closer race than Pennsylvania.

gen/43709/original.jpg But Pennsylvania packs a walloping 21 electoral college votes and as the site of an Election Day "surprise" -- a la Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004 -- it could make the difference. Democrats here are on high "red" alert. Just as Bush-Cheney-Rove sent their troops into Ohio during the weeks leading up to the 2004 election, McCain-Palin-Schmidt staff are increasingly present in Pennsylvania this month. Rumors of voter suppression--some true and some not-so-true--abound.

Pennsylvania Democrats remember well how African-American voters in Florida were falsely identified in the 2000 election as felons and told they could not vote. Later it was proven that anyone whose name resembled a felon's name had been deliberately listed as one in order to prevent them from voting. Pennsylvania Democrats remember, also, how Floridians who had been voting at polling places in the same location for years, arrived on Election Day in 2000 to find that their polling places had been moved or relocated. Many voters were redirected to new locations more than once before finding a place to exercise their right to vote; others simply stopped trying. Pennsylvanians are aware that in Florida, in 2000, 26,000 Broward County votes, representing nearly forty percent of the predominately African-American county's electorate, were thrown out.

The dirty tricks have begun here in the Keystone state. Pennsylvanians are on guard especially in the greater Philadelphia area, which accounts for forty percent of the state's electorate and where the majority of African Americans reside. Students, who by a wide margin favor Obama, and African-American voters in Philadelphia have already received fliers, slipped under their doors, spreading the lie that, if anyone has an outstanding traffic violation, they cannot vote. Jewish voters in Pennsylvania have been the recipients of a vicious e-mail letter smear, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Republican Party's Victory 2008 committee, spreading the lie that Obama "taught members of ACORN to commit voter fraud." Even worse and more offensively slanderous, in a truly sick attempt to frighten and appeal to their emotions, the e-mail told Jewish voters that, if they vote for Obama, they will make the "tragic mistake" their ancestors made when they "ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 40s."

The Republican Party has repudiated the e-mail and former state Supreme Court justice Sandra Schwartz Newman, who admits helping to write the letter, has since apologized.

In light of these attempts at voter suppression, when rumors began to circulate that polling places had been removed from the campuses of Cheyney and Lincoln, two historically African-American universities in suburban Philadelphia's traditionally Republican Delaware and Chester counties, the rumors were worth investigating. Founded by a Quaker philanthropist in 1837 as the Institute for Colored Youth, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania is the oldest of the nation's historically black colleges and universities. Cheyney's best-known alumnus is the late Ed Bradley, the award-winning CBS journalist. Located twenty-five miles west of Philadelphia in Delaware County, Cheyney is surrounded by southeastern Pennsylvania's gentle countryside, which though peaceful, makes public transportation inconvenient at best. Today, Cheyney has a diverse student body and the majority of students live on campus, which spreads outward from a classic quadrangle. The university isn't far from Widener University where yesterday morning, Obama spoke to nine-thousand supporters, including Cheyney students, who stood in the cold, pouring rain to hear him.

Contrary to rumors, Cheyney's campus did not have a polling place in the past and has not had one recently. The rural setting, however, did make it difficult for students to reach the nearest polling place on election days. Excited about this year's historic election and determined to ensure that as many of their fellow students as possible would be able to vote, last spring the university's branch of the NAACP--students--petitioned to have a polling place on campus. As it was, the local polling place was so far from campus that students needed a car in order to reach it. Since the majority of students are campus residents and not everyone has a car, the location of the polling place posed an obstacle to their exercising their right to vote. With the support of the Cheyney's administration and in collaboration with the NAACP of Media, Delaware County, a network of grassroots organizations, and both the Democratic and Republican parties, the students pursued their goal, working with the Delaware County Board of Elections. The university administration submitted a letter to the board on the students' behalf, promising to do whatever was required and needed to have an on-campus polling place.

The Country Board of Elections reached a decision in September. Although they decided not to locate the polling place on Cheyney's campus, they did move it closer, right outside the footprint of the university, in the Township Building, within walking distance of the campus.

"We are extremely proud of our students' hard work and determination," said Eric Almonte, Cheyney's executive associate to the President, "This type of civic participation is what inspires young people to achieve. They really worked hard, learned how the system operates, and reached a positive outcome."

The situation at Lincoln University was different. Lincoln was founded in 1854 as the Ashmun Institute, the first institution founded anywhere in the world to provide higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent. Renamed in honor of Abraham Lincoln in 1866, the university, which today has an international, interracial, male and female enrollment, has an extraordinary roster of legendary alumni including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, poet Langston Hughes, the first President of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and the first President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. Like Cheyney, the university is located among the farmland and hills of southern Pennsylvania, in Chester County, forty-five miles southwest of Philadelphia. Until 1992, there was a polling place was on Lincoln's campus. In 1992, however, the polling place was relocated. This year, according to the County Board of Elections, the Democratic Party requested that the polling place be returned to the university campus. The university was contacted and asked whether they would be willing to host a polling place on campus. After reviewing the possibility, the university offered their gymnasium as a polling place. When the request was presented to the three members of the Board, however, the commissioner Terrence Farrell who is African American questioned why this petition had not been made in any other year between 1992 and 2008.

"No one had an answer," said Jim Forsythe, director of Chester County Voter Services. "The commissioner thoroughly reviewed the request and by a two to one margin, the board voted to keep the polling place where it is at the Lincoln Community Association Building in Oxford, about a mile and a half from Lincoln's campus." Although he did not explain why they'd chosen to keep the polling place off-campus, Forsythe did point out that at the time they made their decision, only 172 of Lincoln's 2100 students were using their campus address as their main address and that the polling place would be used by everyone in the township.

Michael Hill, Lincoln's vice president of development and external relations, said that the administration has made sure that Lincoln students know where their polling place is located.

An army of poll watchers will monitor polling places throughout Pennsylvania, poised to report and handle any instances of voter suppression. Voter protection is on everyone's mind this year.