Church closure leads to new polling station angering locals

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TOWNSHIP — Moving a polling place more than a mile has sparked anger and suspicion of voter suppression among some black residents of the city’s Fourth Ward.

About 3,500 registered voters in one Canton Ward 2 precinct and three Ward 4 precincts were notified of the change in late March or early April by the Stark County Board of Elections.

The mailed notice said they would no longer vote at the Old Antioch Baptist Church at 1844 Ira Turpin Way NE, about a 20-minute walk from Tuscarawas Street E. The church was on the edge north of Ward 4 where it adjoins Ward 2. It had been a polling station since at least 2012.

Instead, residents would vote May 3 in Ward 6, about 1.3 miles away at Canton Harbor High School, a charter school at 1731 Grace Ave. NOT. It is a 42-minute walk from Tuscarawas Street E and Belden Avenue NE, near where many of the polling site voters live.

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While at school to vote on Tuesday, two black voters from Ward 4 opposed the change.

“Some of these people don’t even drive, so how are they going to get here to vote?” asked Shelly Showalter. “They don’t want black people to vote.”

“It’s too far to come (here) when you’re an elderly person or need a ride,” said 61-year-old Joe Wood. “Come on! Talk to me! Talk to everyone and find out if there are closer places to go.”

What are the rules for choosing a polling place?

Ward 4 resident Henry Mack, 84, lives 1.4 miles from the previous polling location and 2.4 miles from the new Grace Street polling site.

On April 7, in an email to the Board of Elections, he called it “voter suppression of predominantly African American voters. … This location is inconvenient and clearly designed to suppress the 4th Ward vote.”

“We’re the biggest ward in town. We shouldn’t have to cross town to vote in another ward,” he later said.

Stark County election officials, Democrats and Republicans, deny any effort to suppress turnout.

Board of Elections member Kody Gonzalez, a Democrat, said once he and other election officials learned last month of people’s dissatisfaction with the new location, it was too late for the legally change for the May 3 primary.

“It was the closest building we could find that was usable at the time we had,” Gonzalez said.

He and board chairman Samuel Ferruccio, a Democrat, said they would consider any suggestions for future polling places.

“If they want to move it to another place, we will try to find another place that will make everyone happy,” said Gonzalez, who added that the staff also chose Canton Harbor because it is close to a public bus line.

Board of Elections administrative assistant and Republican Travis Secrest said a polling place must comply with federal laws requiring accessibility for people with disabilities. It should have enough square footage to accommodate up to 20 voting machines. It must have enough parking.

Secrest said state law does not set a maximum distance between a polling place and a voter’s home. And a polling station does not have to be in the voter’s precinct, city or township.

In 2010, Stark County had 180 polling places. The county consolidated to about 111, reducing the number of paid poll workers required and significantly reducing costs. But increasing the distance means more travel for some voters.

“We’re trying to keep it as close to the old polling place as possible. If people could get to Antioch, I guess they can go an extra mile,” Secrest said.

And council staff sent the change of polling place notices in late March rather than February because “you don’t want people to forget, so you send it out as close to the election as possible,” Secrest said. .

Impact of Canton Church Closure

On January 20, the Antioch Baptist Church notified the Board of Elections that it could no longer host Ira Turpin’s voting site. The church had to move because it could not agree with its owner to continue using the building.

Board of Elections staff worked to move the polling location to St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church on Cherry Ave NE in Ward 2. But the church said Feb. 8 it must refuse to accommodate voters because of the preparations for its 100th anniversary.

The Board of Elections, without much discussion, approved the change to Canton Harbor Secondary School on February 14, three days after board staff conducted their first site visit to the school. It was one of two changes. The other was in Perry Township because the doors to a church weren’t wide enough for the voting machine storage cages.

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“Nobody asked us.

Members of local neighborhood group Affairs of the Community said the new location was inconvenient and raised concerns about what they perceived as voter suppression in a predominantly black community. Members were also disappointed that Board of Elections staff did not seek public comment, which the law does not require.

At a Monday meeting of the association at Union Baptist Church in Ward 4, all 17 members present objected to having to vote at Canton Harbor High School.

Association president Theodore Johnson said the optics of the situation were horrific.

“We vote. We pay taxes. Nobody asked us to,” said Johnson, who invited Board of Elections staff to the association’s June 6 meeting.

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Board of Elections director Jeff Matthews, a Republican, and deputy director Regine Johnson, a Democrat, released a statement Thursday.

They wrote that 297 people for the four constituencies served by Canton Harbor Secondary School cast ballots for Primary Tuesday, not counting late ballots and provisional ballots. That’s an increase from the 283 who voted in the May primary in 2018 for those same constituencies, before they were consolidated from five constituencies.

Council staff considered nine locations, including Union Baptist Church. Council staff visited the church on Google Street View. She seemed too small for them to ever visit the church.

However, the Google Street View image dates back to 2011. According to Johnson, around 2019 the size of the church more than doubled as part of a remodel.

“Why would you just set there, and do that without getting up, and look to see?” asked Councilwoman Chris Smith, D-4, who questioned why council staff hadn’t asked her for suggestions.

One site said no. Another, the Canton Memorial Civic Center would not be available for a possible primary in August due to Pro Football Hall of Fame festivities.

Board staff eliminated Crenshaw Middle School, AIM Academy Belden and JRC Learning Center because they did not have direct access between disabled parking spaces and their gymnasiums.

The statement said the heat at St. Paul AME Church, a former polling place, was not working and a person at the church indicated that the church may soon sell its building.

It is unclear why St. Benedict’s Catholic Church on Tuscarawas Street E and Belden Elementary School, which were proposed by Community Affairs, were not considered. But Secrest said the board tries to avoid schools because school staff use most parking spaces and challenges keeping voters in a separate area from students.

Canton Harbor has high school students who are away from campus much of the day for work and it has a large gymnasium separate from the rest of the school that can accommodate 20 voting machines.

Gonzalez, the member of the board of elections, said that to his knowledge, no past change in voting location – which can range from zero to five per year – has drawn so many objections.

“Lesson learned,” he said. “Obviously that will be a question I will ask next time if we decide to move the polling stations. …. I will have to ask if they have reached out.”

Contact Robert at (330) 580-8327 or [email protected] Twitter: @rwangREP.

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