Feb 23, 2010

Letters to the editor: Richard Mast

by Richard Mast

Dear Editor,

I just finished watching the online recordings of the February 9 and February 16, 2010 Lynchburg City Council meetings regarding the controversy over polling place locations. I must say that I am less than impressed with the level of conduct, cooperation and maturity on the part of several council members, in relation to what should be a very simple issue.

Ward III’s polling place is currently located at Heritage Elementary School, and as everyone knows, parking is insufficient and getting in and out is difficult at best. In light of this, it is incomprehensible to me that the Council would propose only ONE alternative to this location, rejecting out of hand several others that have been suggested. Since it is clear that the majority of voters in this precinct will be students from Liberty University, many of whom will of necessity require bus assistance to reach the polls, I can only conclude that the goal here is to discourage as many of them as possible from exercising their voting rights, by making it as difficult as possible for them to get where they need to go.

Certain Council members raised objections that one of the proposed alternatives, the old Circuit City building, was an improper venue because it was “outside” the district boundaries, and that such a proposal was just plain “disrespectful”. This was the characterization, despite the City Attorney’s statement that not only does the Virginia code allow the polling place to be located outside the boundary of the precinct (as long as it’s within a 1 mile radius), there have been several other polling places located outside their precincts in Lynchburg history. The most recent of these was the Fairview Heights Community Center for Ward II, which was itself outside of Ward II. The City Attorney said that the Circuit City building was close enough to the boundary of the precinct such that it could properly serve as the precinct polling place.

Councilman (Burt) Dodson was asked if he would allow both Circuit City and First Church of the Nazarene to be studied by the Electoral Board for the purposes of objectively determining which one was best. Instead of allowing both venues to be studied, Dodson dismissively stated that he would not, because it’s “disrespectful to the permanent residents”, the implication being that LU students are upstarts and not full members of the Lynchburg community.

Later in the meeting, Councilman Dodson said... that on the one hand it was just “disrespectful” to even bring up the idea of moving the polling place from Heritage Elementary School, because the “permanent residents” are used to it being there. (However,)on the other hand, he proposed to move the polling place away from Heritage Elementary, to First Church of the Nazarene, where it is more “centrally located.” Councilman Dodson is trying to have it both ways – or any way – as long as it’s “out of the way” for Liberty students.

In the February 16, 2010 meeting on the issue, I was amazed at the level of disrespect shown by Councilman Ceasor Johnson, who said that “you just can’t compromise with some people,” and that government was supposed to be of the people, by the people and for the people — “all people, not just Falwell’s people; all the people, not just Liberty University students.” ... Johnson appears to be placing personal feelings above what is best for the voters of Ward III.

There are larger issues at stake than personal pet peeves. ALL of the voters in this precinct need a place that they can get in, cast their vote, and get on with their day’s activities without unnecessary delay. (The voters of Ward III) need a location that is safe and accessible. Instead of addressing this need, the City Council’s actions will only serve to alienate a significant portion of the Lynchburg population — among which I count myself. As a bit of background, I came to LU in 2005 to finish my college degree, which I did in 2007. My wife and I have begun raising a family here, and it disappoints us to see those elected to represent all of the people of Lynchburg behaving as if those attending Liberty University are somehow second-class citizens.

Council members voting against this measure all know the timeframe that the venue change is up against with the Department of Justice concerning Voting Rights Act oversight. They also know that all voters must be notified 15 days prior to the election. By their delay Tuesday, and by their statements, I can only conclude that they are playing politics yet again for personal and vindictive reasons, with the civic participation of student voters again held hostage to their egos.

Richard Mast

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