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NAACP calls for probe into possible voter discrimination

By Caitilin McAdoo, Bay City News Service

December 5, 2006

RICHMOND (BCN) - The Richmond branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has asked the Contra Costa County Elections Department and the state and federal departments of justice to investigate allegations that some minorities in west Contra Costa County faced serious obstacles to casting their votes in the Nov. 7 election.

Long lines and pencil shortages were not the only problems reported in Richmond and North Richmond communities during the recent election.

The Richmond NAACP stated in a letter written Friday that some "African-American voters may have been improperly turned away from the polls at Wilson Elementary School" in Richmond.

In addition, the NAACP has reported that several polling places that were once located in African-American communities were moved to majority white areas.

"People want to vote in their own community," President-elect for the Richmond branch of the NAACP Ken Nelson said yesterday.

The elections department consolidated and changed polling places throughout the county for the Nov. 7 election, but some of those consolidations did not make sense to people in affected communities.

For example, according to Nelson, residents of unincorporated North Richmond were told to vote at the same polling place they had voted at in past elections. Next door, however, residents of incorporated areas of north Richmond were told that they now had to go to Point Richmond to vote, which meant that they had to get on the freeway and drive to an unfamiliar neighborhood to cast their ballots, Nelson said.

"The process was flawed and a detriment to voters, especially seniors (who have trouble getting around)," Nelson said.

Nelson said that 99 percent of the voting problems reported in the county occurred in west Contra Costa County, which has a higher number of minority voters than other areas of the county.

"It casts a cloud of suspicion over the whole process," he said. The county does not have a history of discriminatory voting practices nor is the NAACP claiming that the obstacles were intentionally placed, but Nelson said, "Regardless of what their intentions were, they disenfranchised a community ... and that's what matters in the end." Nelson said, "It's not acceptable."

Nelson said his office received about a dozen phone calls from frustrated voters immediately following the election, but since news has gotten out that the NAACP is calling for an investigation, his office is now receiving several complaints a day.

While many of the complaints have come from people who did manage to vote in spite of difficulties, the NAACP is looking to find those people who were not able to navigate the difficulties and were effectively prevented from voting, Nelson said.

Some voters saw the problems before Election Day and told City Councilman John Marquez that they would not go to a different community to vote. Marquez worked with the elections department to set up a table in the community where voters could cast provisional ballots, Nelson said.

According to Stephen Weir, county clerk for the Contra Costa County Election Department, 107 voters cast provisional ballots at that location. Countywide, 87 percent of the 9,250 provisional ballots cast were counted in the final elections tally. About 10 percent of Richmond voters cast provisional ballots, which is slightly higher than the county average, Weir said.

According to Nelson, a large problem was that only people who knew about the provisional ballot table could take advantage of it.

By law, people who show up at an incorrect polling place on an election day should be given the opportunity to cast provisional ballots.

According to Weir, some reports indicate that some voters may not have been offered a provisional ballot.

Inadequate notification of polling place changes and inadequate training of poll supervisors contributed to the difficulties in west county,

Nelson said. Weir said that training logs indicate that all poll workers were given the requisite training.

Weir said that he would be conducting a thorough investigation into all of the allegations. He has begun by looking at the elections department's complaint log and said he plans to read the journals that poll-workers were asked to keep to document problems.

"There are some instances where we have asked people to travel excessive distances," Weir said. He said he will be examining how to improve the process for future elections and will be asking for input from communities throughout the county.

In spite of the difficulties, voter turnout in west Contra Costa County did not appear to be significantly impacted, Weir said.

In fact, 57.37 percent of Richmond voters showed up at the polls on Nov. 7, which was "exactly what it was in November 2002," Weir said.

Nelson said that the Richmond branch of the NAACP has contacted the civil rights divisions of both the state and federal departments of justice and asked for an investigation. The Richmond NAACP branch has also contacted Congressman George Miller, California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson and the legal counsel for the NAACP.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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