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Worcester Commissioners Delve Into Voter Suppression Allegations

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Residents packed into City Hall Monday night to hear the Worcester Board of Election Commissioners address reports of possible voter intimidation and suppression during last Thursday's state primary election.

The five commissioners listened to comments from the public, members of City Council and City Clerk David Rushford in relation to the events of last week.

Mayor and Councilors Take a Stand

Mayor Joseph Petty was the first to speak before the board, stating that with a highly-contested election anticipated in November, it is increasingly important to make sure everyone knows the rules and abides by them.

"I'm not going to allow, as Mayor of the City of Worcester, people to be intimidated to walk into the polling booth," he said.

"There is no way on my watch that we're going to allow this to happen."

The mayor went on to implore the Board of Commissioners to work together with City Manager Michael O'Brien to develop a further set of rules for poll observers, workers and police.

"We need to make this process easy in November and not hard."

O'Brien, Councilor William Eddy, Councilor Frederick Rushton and Councilor Sarai Rivera, who experienced the alleged intimidation firsthand, all came before the board as well.

"We don't get better when we try to reduce the voice," said Rushton. "We get better when we empower the voice."

Intimidation Allegations

Much of the discussion centered around events that took place at the 50 Murray Avenue polling station, where Rivera's run-in with observer Bonnie Johnson occurred.

Rushford told the board and audience that he made three separate trips to the location in response to agitating activity at the polls.

According to Rushford, Johnson had moved to the front of the table in the polling station and was the first person greeting voters as they entered.

Chris Robarge, an observer for the ACLU, said he observed Johnson filming a conversation between Rushford and police outside the polling place as well as people at the check-in table prior to casting their votes.

Robarge reported what he saw to Rushford, and the two then entered the polling place with two police officers to talk to Johnson. When asked, Johnson denied recording or photographing anyone, and after she refused to place her phone in her vehicle, she was escorted out by police.

Poll Workers Speak Out

Poll workers Sharon Williamson and Donna Winant defended the actions of Johnson and others. Williamson also took issue with what she described as Rushford's overly harsh treatment of Johnson, and Winant said the assistance Councilor Rivera provided to voters was egregious and represented a conflict of interest.

Other issues involving redistricting and handicapped-accessible polling places were also raised.

Tina Hood, another poll worker, said the biggest problem at her polling station was the observers themselves.

By noon, said Hood, seven observers were crowding the polling area, looking at voter lists, using their phones and placing calls within the polling place.

Hood said she tried to be accomodating and work with the observers as much as possible, but many of them were mean to her regardless.

"I offered them muffins and cookies," she said, fighting unsuccessfully to hold back tears. "I was being nice to them."

Mayor Petty and Councilor Eddy have petitioned the City Council to request City Manager O'Brien collaborate with the Board of Election Commissioners to work on establishing and implementing additional guidelines for November's election and publicize the state and local laws relating to photography and audio and video recordings within polling places.

The Council is set to hear the measure at its Tuesday, September 11 meeting. 


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