An anonymous flier circulated in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and on college campuses last week, aimed at intimidating voters in a city that could decide who wins the state’s 21 electoral votes in the upcoming election.
The flier, which was distributed in North and West Philadelphia and on the campuses of Community College of Philadelphia and Drexel University, is written in the voice of a student and claims anyone with outstanding traffic tickets or warrants will be arrested at the polls come Nov. 4. It also states that vehicles will be under electronic surveillance and those with traffic offenses will be towed.
“Police are not going to be used in this way. I want to put to death these ridiculous statements that are so far from the truth it’s laughable,” said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison.
Under Pennsylvania law, police are not allowed within 100 feet of a polling place.
With just three weeks left until the election, the emergence of the fliers, as well as other misinformation about voters’ rights disseminated over the Internet, has caused concern among city officials and others in the community. Concern, but not surprise.
“There will be a lot more of this as the election gets closer,” said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, an independent political watchdog group. “The most unusual thing is it appeared so early,” Stalberg said, adding that most voter intimidation occurs approximately 48 hours before an election, when there is no time to rebut the misinformation.
“I’m not surprised,” said Jerry Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. “The other side is desperate so they are going after marginal populations.”
“I think the opposition will use a tried and true method — lies and intimidation. It’s business as usual,” said Ray Jones, a lifelong North Philadelphia resident and community activist.
Both Mondesire and Jones believe that the fliers are a reaction to the record numbers of registered Democrats in the hotly contested state. In Philadelphia alone, Democratic registration increased by 14 percent in the last year, while Republican registration declined by 4 percent.
“The stakes are big. Philly’s margin will probably determine the outcome for Pennsylvania. Inevitably, some bad behavior will be coming from all sides,” Stalberg said.
Gillison said the city is “on notice” for additional incidents of voter intimidation and will not hesitate to prosecute anyone found to be involved in similar actions.
“I want to make it clear that the city will not stand for these kinds of shenanigans. [But] this gives us an opportunity to let people know what rights they have,” Gillison said.
Implicit to the effectiveness of voter intimidation is ignorance among the electorate. The city and the Committee of Seventy encourage citizens to contact them with any questions they may have.
“I think the larger issue here is that new and younger voters take this [election] seriously,” said Stalberg, adding that often these voters register but don’t actually vote.
The Committee of Seventy plans to have 600 to 800 volunteers on the street on Election Day to answer questions and are still looking for volunteers. It also has an “Election myths exposed” link on the home page of its Web site, which counters popular myths such as felons can’t vote – they can – or students will be taxed or lose their financial aid – they won’t.
“The only way to destroy rumors is to bring them out into the sunlight,” said Mondesire, an attitude echoed by all those interviewed.
“The city stands ready to assist people to vote,” Gillison said. Everyone has a right. Everyone has a responsibility.”
Paula Sen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.