In predominately white Chester County, Pa., Lower Oxford East Township contains the largest concentration of African-American voters, largely because of Lincoln University, one of the oldest historically African-American universities in the country.
The township made national news following the 2008 presidential election, when some voters were forced to wait literally all day in pouring rain in order to vote. Many voters had to leave without casting their votes, disenfranchised by inadequate polling facilities.
Despite numerous warnings before the election that the cramped polling place would cause problems, the County Board of Elections had refused to change the location of the polling place – a tiny community center that could accommodate only two lines of voters, a small number of privacy booths, and a single ballot scanner. And even after the 2008 fiasco, the Board of Elections rejected a petition to move the polling place to the campus of Lincoln University, where it had previously been located for years.
In January of 2010, we filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of African American residents and Lincoln University students in Chester County, charging that the County Board of Elections and Department of Voter Services deprived African-Americans in Lower Oxford East Township of their right to vote by assigning them to inconvenient and inadequate polling facilities.
The lawsuit asked the court to order Chester County to return the Lower Oxford East polling place to the Lincoln University campus, to authorize federal elections monitors in order to prevent unnecessary obstacles, and to award damages to residents who faced extreme difficulties or were prevented from voting in the 2008 general election. The case quickly went into negotiations, then into mediation under the direction of federal magistrate Judge Jacob P. Hart. A settlement was reached in the case in August of 2010.
The Law Center partnered in this case with DLA Piper LLP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Marian Schneider, Esq., a Chester County lawyer and voting rights advocate.
Under pressure of our lawsuit, Chester County agreed in August 2010 to stop interfering with the most fundamental American right – the right to vote – and agreed in settlement to return the Lower Oxford East polling place to the Lincoln University campus, where it had been in the 1990s. The County also agreed to notify all Lower Oxford East voters of the change in polling location and to transfer a portion of Lower Oxford East to Lower Oxford West in order to lessen administrative burdens.
The federal court will retain jurisdiction over issues relating to the Lower Oxford East polling place through the 2012 presidential election, allowing plaintiffs to return quickly to court if problems arise.