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Students address City Council on polling place

February 24, 2010 : By Marcelo A. Quarantotto

Matt Mihelic, Liberty University SGA president, addresses City Council at the Feb. 23 public hearing.

Israel Jackson was one of dozens of students to speak at the Feb. 23 public hearing.

During Liberty University’s convocation on Monday, Feb. 22, Matthew Mihelic, president of the Student Government Association (SGA), invited students to join him at the Lynchburg City Council meeting on Feb. 23 to voice concerns at a public hearing about the possibility of moving the Ward III polling place, where students have turned out by the thousands to vote in previous elections.

Council was considering moving the site from Heritage Elementary School to the Lynchburg First Church of the Nazarene on Wards Ferry Road. The proposed precinct change to the Nazarene church is a location some LU administrators and students believed was being considered because Council wanted to make it difficult for buses carrying LU voters. On a test drive at the proposed polling site, a GLTC bus bottomed out, causing damage to the bus and to the pavement.

“The first thing that I need from you is that I need you to come with me,” Mihelic said at Monday’s convocation. “If there are any of you that can make it, I need you to come … So we need to go there with the love of Christ and we need to show them that we care — let’s tell America that we care.”

Students responded and boarded buses to ride to City Hall for Tuesday’s meeting. Before the buses left, Mihelic paced in and out of a crowd that grew to about 200 students. Mihelic called them in for prayer, and then said, “You don’t want to be timid, but you don’t want to be overly political either. You want to go there in a spirit of love, just like we have in the past.”

Students rode beneath the glittering lights of the Snowflex Centre and passed the humming neon displays of Candlers Station shopping center and Thomas Road Baptist Church — sites nearby campus and offered (but later denied) as alternative polling places for the precinct. Chatter filled the buses about the City Council meeting — some students had never before been to the historic downtown area.

The turnout of students pouring into City Hall was such that many had to be directed from entering the chamber, and pointed upstairs to the “overflow room.” Sparky, the Liberty Flames’ mascot, joined the crowd — adding to the fervor normally attributed to sporting events.

Natasha Hudson, a freshman nursing student from Brooklyn, N.Y., came to the meeting because she felt that “something needs to be changed” in regard to the polling location, since it is difficult for many students to get out and vote. Hudson, who lives off campus, voted locally in November 2009 and plans on voting again on May 4.

Minutes before meeting, Mayor Joan Foster came upstairs and greeted the students. “Thank you for being here,” she said to one student, and patted her back.

Two Lynchburg natives were the first to speak, one of which said, “I resent anyone coming into my house wanting to rearrange my furniture.”

Mihelic was then the first Liberty student to speak, followed by others affiliated with the university who spent the next few hours relating their frustrations with the polling location situation — all saying they would vote no matter what.

About 30 LU students spoke, many expressing the same sentiments about the change in venue. Many said they felt “disenfranchised” and as if they were treated “as second-class citizens” when an alternative polling place was being considered.

“Whether it takes us running, jogging, flying, swimming — we will vote on May 4,” said student Israel Jackson.

After the public hearing, council members expressed that they would have to choose between the “lesser of two evils.” While Heritage Elementary is not the optimum venue (the school is scheduled to be open that day), the Nazarene church would prove to be unsafe for many.

Councilman Turner Perrow Jr. expressed his gratitude for how Liberty students became involved.

“Comcast broadcasts all City Council meetings on Channel 15. I think one of the best things that happened tonight is that the city of Lynchburg got to see you as individuals. It’s easy to paint with a broad brush what Liberty University is and it’s easy to throw darts at a big target like that. But to see the individuals and to see your individual views and opinions, I think that moment was priceless and I think that the city will really appreciate that. So thank you for coming out and speaking your mind.”

At the end of the meeting, council members cast their votes for a 7-0 decision to keep the Ward III polling place at Heritage Elementary.

Liberty Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., posted the following on his Facebook status after the meeting: “[I] just watched the three-hour public hearing downtown and [have] never been more proud of LU's students. In my opinion, the students demonstrated to the local community that they are independent thinkers and exemplary citizens of the city who represent Jesus Christ and LU well!”