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SGA urges students to speak up about polling place

February 22, 2010 : David Hylton

Liberty students board buses at Heritage Elementary School during the November 2009 elections.

The Liberty University Student Government Association is encouraging students to attend a public hearing Tuesday, Feb. 23, to voice their concerns about moving the polling place for Lynchburg City Council Elections in May.

For the past two years, students living on campus have voted in November elections in Lynchburg’s Precinct 4 Ward III polling place at Heritage Elementary School. For the presidential election in 2008 and the Virginia governor’s race in 2009, hundreds of students have taken buses to the school to cast their ballots. In the most recent elections, students were a key factor in electing Republican Scott Garrett to the state House of Delegates.

Since students have been allowed to vote locally, they have desired a polling place closer to campus, as they represent the vast majority of registered voters in the precinct. City officials have proposed an alternative site – Lynchburg First Church of the Nazarene on Wards Ferry Road — but LU officials and students are concerned about safety issues there.

Buses would not be able to get in out of the church safely, said Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., and would have to stop in the street to let students off. Other city officials have also expressed concerns about the curvy road and the risks involved with extra traffic that day.

“It is federal law that local governments make it easy and accessible for citizens to vote,” said SGA President Matt Mihelic, “so when the City Council took that request and put forward Lynchburg First Church of the Nazarene, a location that is impossible for buses to travel to and already has an extremely high rate of traffic on Ward's Ferry Road, it would seem that the proposal is contradictory to the American spirit encouraging citizens to cast their ballot.”

As an alternative, LU has offered the use of the old Circuit City store at Candlers Station shopping center — now owned by LU — or Thomas Road Baptist Church.

“Most of the voters in this precinct are on this campus,” Falwell said, “and these locations are still easily accessible to everyone else.”

City Council, however, did not approve LU’s proposals. Last week, council heard two motions on alternatives presented by LU, but the proposals were defeated on a split vote.

The electoral board will make the final recommendation on the polling place and will deliver a report to City Council on Tuesday following the public hearing.

“If they move it to the Wards Ferry Road location, it adds insult to injury and will further infuriate our students,” Falwell said.

Mihelic added that the Nazarene church location is inconvenient to other voters in the precinct, not just LU students.

“The City Council decided not to consider other opportune locations that would, as opposed to the Nazarene church, be accessible to handicapped citizens and Lynchburg voters needing bus transportation,” he said.

Mihelic said he and the SGA are inviting all students to attend City Council’s public hearing at City Hall at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23 to voice their concerns.

“If City Council desires to put to vote a choice that will overtly limit the number of Liberty students able to vote, they will not do so without hearing from Liberty students first,” Mihelic said. “The recent events in City Council are of great concern to students who merely desire a fair and lawful voice in local elections. … Students are quite concerned about the polling location switch. Disappointed is an understatement.”