Laurel Man Says Lack of Polling Places in Tuesday's Referendum Is Discriminatory

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009

To cast his ballot in next week's referendum in Laurel, resident Adrian Rousseau will have to travel to a nearby senior center where citywide elections have been held for decades, seven-tenths of a mile from his home.

But because this will be the only polling place open for Tuesday's vote, rather than the several sites used in county, state and federal elections, Rousseau, who is African American, has filed a civil lawsuit accusing the city of racial discrimination.

He says that he should be able to vote where he does in presidential elections, at Laurel High School about a mile from his home, and that the city should offer five polling sites to accommodate the city's more than 13,000 registered voters.

"I don't care if it's even further away. I just feel I deserve the same opportunity to vote where I always vote," Rousseau said.

The referendum in the four-by-four-mile city will ask voters about how elections should be run and about the length of officials' terms and their salaries. But officials say that it has been overshadowed by racially charged rhetoric. The seven ballot questions were written by a committee researching how to increase voter turnout.

"This is about a referendum election where mayor and council are trying to allow the community input, and that's kind of been lost," Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe said. "I just think that's unfortunate."

Rousseau, who is representing himself in the lawsuit in Prince George's County Circuit Court, wrote in his complaint that he plans to run for the City Council next year. He says that the polling site is in a "predominantly white neighborhood" -- an assertion that several officials disputed, saying that the city's ethnic populations are interwoven.

According to U.S. Census data, about 41 percent of Laurel residents are white, 44 percent black. The city is divided into two wards. Tuesday's polling site, at the Phelps Senior Citizens Center, is in Ward 1; Rousseau lives in Ward 2.

City Council member Frederick Smalls, who was on the voter turnout committee, said that the allegations of racial discrimination are irresponsible and that they might be motivated by gripes Rousseau has over a funding request for the local Boys & Girls Club that the council denied. Rousseau, who is on the club's board of directors, denied that charge.

"There are four African Americans that served on this ad hoc committee. I'm one of the four," Smalls said. "So if there was any possibility of this referendum vote possibly disenfranchising any group . . . we would have spoken up. . . . As a person of color, I take great issue with someone using the race card to attempt to advance an issue that lacks merit from the beginning."

Like many localities, Laurel typically draws sparse turnout for city elections compared with gubernatorial or presidential ones. In the City Council election last September, turnout was 3 percent -- 402 voters. Two years before, in the mayoral election, turnout was 7 percent, said Kimberley A. Rau, the city's clerk.

Officials said they think one polling place will be sufficient for Tuesday's vote.

"Look at the numbers," said H. Edward Ricks, a former council member who chaired the voter turnout committee. "It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out the one polling place can handle" the turnout.

Rousseau is asking the court to mandate additional polling places or stop the election. It is unclear when the court will weigh in, although Rousseau said he expects it will be after Tuesday. Former City Council member Michael Sarich, an ally of Rousseau's, has sought to halt the election through a preliminary injunction. It was denied, but his case is pending in Prince George's Circuit Court.

Rousseau said he was encouraged to sue by a group of civic activists in Prince George's known as People for Change, who helped him organize a protest rally Tuesday night at the Boys & Girls Club. It drew about 80 people, some Rousseau supporters, some simply curious.

Laurel resident Shirley Bell, 57, said she could walk to the polling site if necessary but thinks having one site is discriminatory.

"Some people can't walk," she said. "You've got elderly people."

Officials said they were considering adding polling places in future city elections.

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