- Associated Press - Monday, June 25, 2018

MANCHESTER, Conn. (AP) - Town leaders seek to resurrect a polling place at the former Nathan Hale School after complaints that shuttering the voting hub six years ago disenfranchised the neighborhood’s mostly minority, low-income residents.

The polling place was removed in 2012 during state redistricting that cut the number of local voting districts from 10 to eight.

The board of directors voted unanimously on June 5 to return the polling place to Spruce Street school after some residents and town leaders said the neighborhood was being marginalized.

After that vote, however, the town attorney informed directors that time had run out to make changes for this year’s elections, according to state law. Also, the former school, which was closed in 2012, has handicapped accessibility problems, officials found.

The board voted at a special meeting Thursday to modify the June 5 decision while keeping a focus on resurrecting Nathan Hale as a polling place, effective in 2019.

Under state law, a town’s legislative body creates new voting districts and registrars decide polling place locations, so the directors’ vote asked registrars to research creation of a new voting district, with a polling place preferably at Nathan Hale.

In 2012, directors approved the registrars’ plan to drop to the current eight voting districts, eliminating polling places at Nathan Hale and Washington elementary schools. The change was driven by the state legislature’s remapping of state House districts, town officials said at the time.

Because of many problems during the November 2012 election, including long lines and lack of adequate parking at some polling places, registrars in 2013 sought a return to 10 districts. Directors, however, decided they wanted to see whether increased staffing and other changes at polling places would solve the problems.

Residents who had cast ballots at Nathan Hale were switched to a district that voted at Highland Park School that now serves about 5,000 voters. Democratic leaders say the change disenfranchised people in the downtown neighborhood, in part because many lack transportation.

“We gave a record number of rides to the polls last year in the town election,” Democratic town committee Chairman Mike Pohl said. “The number of rides we gave exceeded that of the presidential election in 2016. It is important that polling places are located in all of Manchester’s neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods with the highest percentage of people who use mass transit or have only one car in the family.”

The registrars and some directors said the newly renovated Bennet-Cheney school would be a better choice for a new polling place. The school is in the same general area and is code compliant, while Nathan Hale would require improvements, including making a restroom handicapped accessible.

But board of directors member Pamela Floyd-Cranford, a lead proponent of reviving the Nathan Hale polling place, said “Bennet is not the same to the people who live in that community. . It’s about inclusion and valuing people on an equal level.”

Board of education member Darryl Thames told directors at the June 5 meeting that for about 15 years, he took his son to Nathan Hale when he voted. It was a tradition and a lesson in democracy, Thames said. For the last six years, however, young people in the Spruce Street neighborhood have not benefited from that exposure, Thames said. They don’t see the candidates’ signs and the lines of people waiting to vote.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” Thames said. “These young folk don’t get the opportunity to see the political process at work in their neighborhood.”

Board of directors Minority Leader Cheri Eckbreth said Thames’ point about the social value of a neighborhood voting station resonated with her more than any other arguments. Eckbreth also said that after all the money spent recently on handicapped accessibility upgrades at town schools, making Nathan Hale a viable voting center should be “a minor issue.”

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Online: https://cour.at/2K6Se7w

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Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com

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