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Politics & Elections

Woonsocket closes polling location in dense, working class/community of color precinct



“…regardless of efforts to mitigate the crisis, the Board’s actions amount to voter suppression, intentional or not,” say candidates.

The Fairmount Heights polling location in Woonsocket has been closed due to management concerns of COVID-19 being spread to the residents, and the Woonsocket Board of Canvassers has chosen a new location, Harris Elementary School, located one mile away and out of the precinct. The voters of Fairmount Heights are working class, low-income, racially diverse and many are not English speakers. The district is densely populated.

The lack of properly publicized and public process has led to claims that the change in polling location amounts to voter suppression, whether intentional or not. The Woonsocket Board of Canvassers was informed in June that Fairmount Heights would not host a polling place, but notices to those affected did not go out until after early voting had began.

“Back in June the Board was notified by Fairmount Heights, one of our regular polling places, that we will not be able to use it for any elections this year due to Covid concerns,” Michael Narducci, manager of the Woonsocket Board of Elections, told UpriseRI. “They’re the only one in Woonsocket that’s not operated by the City.

“In June the Board held a meeting voting unanimously to move that location to Harris Elementary School due to the fact that there were no locations in the area. On October 7 we had another board meeting revisiting it, to see if we could come up with another location in the district. We could not. A school a little further down, Coleman School, was not handicapped accessible. So the board voted again to keep it at Harris Elementary School.

“The Board also voted to send a notice to every active voter in the district,” said Narducci.

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These notices were sent out one per household, not one per voter, on October 16. Early voting in Rhode Island started on October 14. The deadline to request a mail ballot was October 13. An ad was placed in the Valley Breeze on October 22 notifying people of the change as well. There will be signs on the doors of Fairmount Heights directing them to Harris School on the day of the election.

“I’ve spoken to people who received the postcard and didn’t realize the importance of it,” said State Senator Melissa Murray (Democrat, District 24, North Smithfield, Woonsocket). “They just tossed it in the trash. Sending out a post card really isn’t enough two weeks before a presidential election.”

Murray is concerned about getting the word out to people who have transportation challenges, who have mobility issues, and the elderly. “I’m trying to figure out the best way to let them know this is going on because I’m not sure there is any way to appeal to the Board of Elections at this point.”

Two slates of candidates for city council have been working hard to activate voters in traditionally under represented voting precincts, including Fairmount Heights.

“While we support the management of Fairmount Heights in making the lives and safety of their residents of paramount concern, we believe that the Board’s efforts to secure a new voting location in that neighborhood were, at best, lacking,” writes Progress Over Politics, a group of three candidates – David Soucy, Margaux Morisseau and Garrett Mancieri – running for Woonsocket City Council as a slate. “Furthermore, the Board of Canvassers efforts – or lack thereof – to publicize the closure in any meaningful way, has caused confusion, and regardless of efforts to mitigate the crisis, the Board’s actions amount to voter suppression, intentional or not.

“We are calling on the Woonsocket Board of Canvassers to hold an emergency meeting immediately, to secure a new poll location in Precinct 3904 before next Tuesday’s election,” said Progress Over Politics.

Another slate of progressive city council candidates – Alex Kithes, Charmaine Webster, Marlene Guay and Vaughn Miller – known as the Woonsocket Democrats, writes:

“We are disturbed that Woonsocket is closing its only polling place in Fairmount, home to a significant portion of the city’s working class and a large community of color. There was little transparency in this process, and there is no visible paper trail from either the City’s Board of Canvassers or the RI Board of Elections.

“Moving the polling location, and only sending a notice after the mail ballot deadline, only serves to decrease voter turnout and sow confusion. Our government should be making it easier to vote in a pandemic by opening more polling locations, and not having a polling location in one of the largest precincts in the city undoubtedly makes voting more difficult and risky.

“We are exploring options to help assist residents of Fairmount reach the new polling place on Election Day if necessary. We are currently partnering with state representative candidate Vincent Bono to provide rides to Fairmount residents to their new polling location.”

A quick review of the meeting agendas announcing Woonsocket Board of Canvassers meeting shows that a discussion about moving the polling location was not properly noticed to the public. The minutes of the meetings, handwritten, mention Fairmount once, but it is hard to read, and mentioned the decision to move the polling place after the Board of Canvassers voted.

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.