Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Lehigh County Resident Who Refuses to Vote in Mosque Is Denied Absentee Ballot

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingLast year, some Whitehall voters were upset at having to vote at the Islamic Center of the Lehigh Valley. Despite complaints, Lehigh County elections officials made no changes. Betty Hillwig, who runs Lehigh County's Voter Registration office, said, "I am not looking to change it.....I think it's a wonderful place. The people there have been lovely, and I'm sorry people are unhappy with it."

I don't blame her. I've voted in churches, schools and fire halls. These locations usually offer ample parking and some elbow room for last-minute electioneering. Most of us don't really mind where we're voting so long as we can get in and out quickly, and grab a cupcake from a bake sale.

But tonight, I'm having second thoughts. I just received a copy of a letter written by a Republican to Bonnie Dodge, telling her "I will not have the opportunity to vote for you or any other candidates this year." Here's why.

"Last year, before the November elections, we were notified that due to growth and redistricting our polling location was changed. We were previously voting at a local high school and now we are to vote at the Islamic Center of the Lehigh Valley.

I am certain that the majority of Islamic worshippers are well meaning and law abiding and I harbor no ill-will toward Muslim's in general. However, I feel it is inappropriate to ask Americans to vote at this location given the events of 9-11. In addition, what happened to the 'division of church and state' as set forth in our constitution? I realize that was meant to not allow religious zealots to control the country and allow for religious freedom, but government (tax) money is being paid to The Islamic Center for use of the space.

Last year was the first time in over 15 years that I did not vote. This year I was determined to not give up that right to vote; I requested an absentee ballot. My request was denied because my reason was 'not a valid reason to receive an absentee ballot.'

I feel that my right to vote has been taken away. I know dozens of other people in my area that feel the same way and will not be voting. I have a friend that works at the polling location on Election Day and she said that turnout was down considerably last year and many stated that their spouse, friends, and neighbors will not set foot in the Islamic Center. "
I'm sorry to hear that so many voters are turned off by the notion of voting in a Muslim facility. They should realize that radical extremists were responsible for what happened on 9/11, and those can be found in all religions. But the Republican (I won't name him) who wrote this letter makes some valid points.

First, when possible, a polling place should be at a religiously neutral site. In Cleveland Heights, for example, elections officials recently reversed a decision to move a polling place from a school building to a Christian church. Orthodox Jews were uncomfortable about visiting a non-Jewish house of worship. Some felt it contrary to Jewish law.

Second, locating a polling place on church property invites abuse of the electoral process. In a recent Texas election, citizens threw their lots on same-sex marriage at a voting station located at a Baptist church. A minister refused to allow signs on church property that promoted gay marriage.

Third, if someone is reluctant to vote in a church or synagogue or mosque, elections officials should readily make absentee ballots available. Refusing this simple solution disenfranchises the voter. That defeats the purpose of the Help America Vote Act. True, elections laws are very strict about absentee ballots, but they are authorized for people unable to attend a polling place for religious reasons. I'm sure the Islamic Center is a wonderful place and I wouldn't mind voting there. It's sad some folks feel uncomfortable, but permitting them to vote by absentee ballot would ensure their voices are still heard and give them time to get used to the idea.


1) Several commenters tell me Betty Hillwig is now retired. But her successors refuse to supply an absentee ballot to a voter who's squeamish about making his choice at a mosque.

2) The letter in question came from a Whitehall voter and was directed to Bonnie Dodge. She forwarded this letter to numerous media outlets, but didn't write it herself.


LSTresidentPIA said...

I too would be troubled voting at a mosque.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I wouldn't mind. But for those who do mind, I don't see why absentee ballots can't be made available. Otherwise, you're just disenfranchising a group of voters.

Some Jews might be offended voting in a Christian church or Muslims might be bothered voting in a Hindu temple.

If a religious site is used for a polling place, absentee ballots should be made readily available for those who might feel it interferes with their religious beliefs.

Thanks for your comment.

Avromi said...

If an entire group must vote absentee, there will be substantially less votes from that group.

Bernie O'Hare said...

You're right. But it's better than no vote. The real answer is to phase out churches, synagogues or mosques as polling places notwithstanding their convenience.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, would have no problem voting in a mosque, church, or any other building. When I enter, it is not a house of worship, a school, etc. It's a place to vote and nothing more.
That said, not to provide an absentee ballot is wrong.

LVDem said...

"The real answer is to phase out churches, synagogues or mosques as polling places notwithstanding their convenience."

I have always felt that Bonnie Dodge is a wacko and her reasons for not voting at a Mosque confirm that. Radicals committed the acts on September 11th... what a narrow world Bonnie Dodge lives in. If she had any reason to her at all, she might have had a shot at Lisa Boscola.

Chris Casey said...

Bernie, I think you need to know that Betty Hillwig retired earlier this year, and has been replaced. I just thought you should know that. I believe that using places of worship as voting centers is perfectly acceptable, because in many rural communities, their building is the only option to accomodate the process. I also agree that if someone feels uncomfortable voting there, They should be allowed to vote by absentee. America is a land of compromise and tolerance. We respect differing views and accomodate them as we can. When I lived in Allentown, I never had a problem voting at the Jewish community center. I can understand where some religios beliefs might.
The point is, while it isn't feasible to accomodate every minority point of view, we do accomodate the great majority, and leave the door open on a case by case basis to accomodate others outside that spectrum. The simple solution is to give those put off by having to vote in a mosque the option of an absentee ballot.
My problem is we are forcing voters to do something they are uncomfortable with to exercise a basic right. I may not agree with their reasoning, but I agree with their right to express it.
I see judicial involvement lurking in the near future, let us hope that common sense prevails.

Pamela said...

I've never heard of voting in Churches or Mosques. Here, we use public schools, senior centers and nursing homes (which is where I vote). I don't really see why voting at a religious establishment is such a big deal, but it was wrong to deny her an absentee ballot.

Bernie O'Hare said...

dg, I agree w/ you completely. You said in two sentences what took me two pages.

Bernie O'Hare said...

LVDem, Perhaps I wasn't clear in my post, but I wasn't talking about Bonnie Dodge. "I just received a copy of a letter written by a Republican to Bonnie Dodge ..." Bonnie merely passed the letter along to me as well as about twenty other places. She did not write the letter.

Like you, I'm not too bothered about where I vote. And I disagree w/ thae writer's complaints about a mosque. But that's the way he feels. Frankly, I think he should be accomodated. Otherwise he is being disenfranchised. It would give him a chance to get used to the idea. He coud see that his friends voted in a mosque and they didn't blow up or turn into terrorists.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Chris, I don't know many of the players in LC. I'll update my post to note your point.

Anonymous said...

The sad thing about the gentleman who wrote the letter is he probably would not have a problem voting in a church even though other terrorists like Timothy McVie, the KKK and the skinheads all proclaim to be christians. This man clearly has this embedded racisim that we see time and time again in the LV from people like Ron Angle.

There was a commercial in the 70s where a gradfather was fishing with his grandson. The child says that he was told by his friend "jimmy" that he is a racist. The man asks "who's Jimmy?" The Child replies, "Jimmy's one of my Jewish friends." The grandfather then tells the child that is not he right way to think of people.

By refusing to vote at an Islamic house of worship and essentially condeming a group for the actions of a few radicals is a horible thing (to put it mildly). This man should be embarrased by his letter but unfortunately he is probably so clueless he has no idea.

Try growing up Jewish (as I did) in this country if you want a perspective on how this form of racism works. I cannot tell you how many Jew jokes and "just Jew them down" comments I have heard over the years. If you then make mention that you are not a part of the 80% christian policy the reaction is usually one of "well you understand what I mean, right?" I understood ... the people that make wholesale comments like that are clearly not the type of people I want to be associated with. Ever.

Bernie O'Hare said...

To Anon 10:02: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I grew up in the LV, and remember very clearly hearing many of the same remarks you mention. I should have opened my mouth and said something then, and feel bad when I think back on it. I'm sorry.

I never gave a second thought about voting in a church, no matter what the denomination. But after reading this fellow's letter, I did have second thoughts.

His views are not my views. But if we can avoid voting at a house of worship, I think we should strive for that. In Ohio, Jews were offended at the prospect of being forced to vote in a church, and I imagine some would have similar concerns about voting in a mosque. Muslims might not like voting at a Catholic church. And some pastors regulate what signs may or may not be placed on church property.

So although the ideal may be to avoid using a church of any kind, the simple reality is they offer a handy and practical solution. It's certainly preferable to voting at a bar or in someone's garage, as has happened in Philly.

But if a church is chosen as a polling place, accomodations should be made for those reluctant to cast their vote there. We can condemn this guy's refusal to vote at a mosque, but that's how he feels. And by refusing to give him an absentee ballot, we are effectively disenfranchising him.

His views aren't shared by you or me and we may not even like his opinions, but he has a right to them and should not lose his right to vote because of them.

Anonymous said...

My experience as Judge of Elections has shown me how challenging it is for the County officials to acquire a suitable polling place for the electorate. Our polling place is now not even located within our own district! We are now co-located (at a church) with another polling district; we have frequent occurances of directing people "across the hall" where they should be going. (And then, of course, you have the people who don't have a clue where they are supposed to vote, so they show up and confuse the boards of both polling places!) I can see why the County officials take what they can get and still satisfy all of the logistical issues involved: size/quality of facility, parking, public & handicap accessibility.

Back in the olden days in Lower Saucon, my Dad would take me along with him to vote. The poll was usually at someone's home who had a spacious garage or an oversized porch. Nowadays, I guess liabilities issues preclude those venues from being used. You also have to have handicapped accessible locations too, so that further cuts down the places you can go.

As for absentee ballots, I know that most poll workers just love (not!) to process those things at the end of the night (when everybody's tired and wants to go home). I wonder how many votes are miscounted because of the voter's confusion with how they were to mark the ballot.

I'll just give one case: the voter marks the "party line" box (meaning that they want to vote for all the candidates of their party) and then proceed to mark other candidates "hither and yon" across the ballot! How confusing is that for the board? How are we to interpret their intentions as there are conflicting choices being made here; either you want all the candidates of the one party - or - you don't! Yes, I know, these ballot papers are more heavily scrutinzed at the County level, but I sure have my misgivings about these things; but I admit, it's better than not giving folks a chance to vote. (Talk about "paper trail"! We sure have one here! ;-)

Doesn't this current discussion dealing with individual's reservations about certain places being used run somewhat counter to the idea that we are a melting pot. When it comes to selecting our political leaders, can't we just perform this duty in a civically neutral way and momentarily just turn a blind eye to the location?

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Doesn't this current discussion dealing with individual's reservations about certain places being used run somewhat counter to the idea that we are a melting pot. When it comes to selecting our political leaders, can't we just perform this duty in a civically neutral way and momentarily just turn a blind eye to the location?"
To Anon 10:33, First of all, I wish to thank you for what you do when acting as Judge of Elections. It's a tough but very important job with very little glory. And I really appreciate your historical perspective.

As far as your question is concerned, my answer would be yes. It never bothered me where I voted. And I think the gentleman who refuses to vote in a mosque should relent and give it a try. But I don't think he should be disenfranchised for his beliefs, even if they are biased.

The simple solution is to let him vote by absentee ballot. I don't think that would last through too many election cycles. I think he just needs time to get used to the idea. We are a melting pot, but we are also a land in which every person should have a right to vote.

LVDem said...

Fair enough about Bonnie... that was my confussion. My apologies in this instance, though I still think her based campaign is an example of theocratic politics.

As far as being disenfranchised, I'll agree but ask if this is the result of gov't action or personal feelings. At what point does an individual have the right to accomodation on this matter. I don't ask this as a political quesiton, more as a legal quesiton. What does current caselaw say? My guess is that it's not on the voter's side. A chance in public policy could correct that, however.

An interesting aside: the county is receiving a lot of requests for absentee ballots this year. There is some speculation that this increase might be the result of coordinated efforts to avoid the use of electronic voting machines. The county's position is that method of voting is not reason to obtain absentee ballots. You have to be out of the district that day to use an absentee ballot (hence the name, absentee).

Perhaps this, more than any other time, is an appropriate time to start considering early voting options. If you want to vote by paper ballot in advance, go to the county voter registration office and vote. There doesn't need to be a reason, but the burden should be on the voter if that's the route taken. Unless the person is truly absent on election day, the county shouldn't have to bare the cost of accomodating somebody, except perhaps to keep the office open for another hour or to have ballots on site. Gov't provides a place to vote. If you don't like it, handle that cost yourself.

Bernie O'Hare said...

LVDem, There are two ways to vote: 1) at the polling place; and 2) by absentee ballot.

I think a person whose religious convictions make him squeamish about voting in a church, synagogue or mosque should not be penalized when an accomodation is available. I believe, therefore, that LC elections officials may have violated this voter's civil rights when they refused to give him an absente ballot.

Using a house of worship as a polling place does present some problems. I agree that it is a practical and neutral solution in most instances and doesn'violate the doctrine of separation of church and state per se. But it can. The Texas situation in the body of my post is an example. And requiring a predominately Jewish precinct to vote in a church would cause some concerns if litigated.

I did an update to make clear that Bonnie Dodge is not the author of that letter. Another commenter was confused as well so I don't think I was clear.

LSTresidentPIA said...

Why don't we ask the family and friends of those serving in Iraq if they would be comfortable voting in a mosque?

Bernie O'Hare said...

I talked to a vet today and he wouldn't mind a bit. But I think some folks need time to get used to the idea.

LVDem said...

got two buddies from school who serve who find it crazy that it's considered troubling to vote in a mosque. Iraqi's voted where they could vote... it's the right to vote that counts.

RadCenter said...

re: lstresidentpia

Since those serving in Iraq are there to serve and protect an almost exclusively Muslim Iraqi population, I would hope their family and friends would be more than just "comfortable" with the idea of a Muslim place of worship serving as a seat of democratic action, instead of merely a place to cache IEDs and shelter insurgents.

One other point: In my experience, when church property is used for a polling place, it is a part of the property (such as a basement social hall, where wedding receptions and the like are held) that is not consecrated for worship. Voters never enter the sanctuary. I would guess the same is true of a mosque or synagogue.

Also, in Lehigh County, I think there's a restriction on any kind of political signage within a certain distance of a polling place, regardless of what the sign says.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Rad, Yeah, the polling place isn't on an altar or anything like that. It's never in the church proper. That's presumably the case at the Islamic Center as well.

The fear or animosity some express for this place is certainly irrational and could be prejudiced. But don't forget the Lehigh Valley is a big cvollection of Dutchies. In Nazareth, they're just getting used to catholics now. I can't imagine a mosque or a Buddhist or Hindu temple going over too well. People are afraid.

That's why I'd give the guy an absentee ballot and would try to give him time to get used to it. Even if the guy is a bigot, he still has a right to vote.

RadCenter said...

Don't be too hard on those Dutchies; I'm one of them myself, and I'd like to think I'm open-minded. But we have a history of being treated as ignorant backwater hicks by those unfamiliar with the area. (From the sons of WIlliam Penn in the 18th century to the developers of the Sands BethWorks today.) Sometimes we let ourselves believe we really are ignorant backwater hicks, making us easily exploited. Result: Macarthur Road in Whitehall Township, et al.

I say, Grundsau Power! :)

Bernie O'Hare said...

No, The Pa. Dutch are good people. George Washington's personal bodyguard was in fact made up of Dutchies from this area. But when any community is predominantly populated by one group, and another group comes in, animosities arise until they get used to each other.

I once had a bad experience in a small store her in nazareth. I told one of my Naz. friends about it, and asked, "Do you think that guy gave me a rough time because I'm Irish?" My friend thought six seconds and answered, "Nah, he gave you a rough time 'cuz you're an asshole."

In this area, not many of us are used to mosques or temples. I think some of what is going on here is a fear of the unknown.

LSTresidentPIA said...

Well, coming from one of those small minded Dutchie/German families who have been in this area for close to a century, I have to disagree. There is always some fear of change and things that are different, but that is not the case. I do not believe that there are not more sleeper cells of terrorists in this country and many of them operate from mosques. We are in a war in a country where mosques are routinely blown up by one religious sect over the other. There is not tolerence in Iraq then how do you expect there to be religous tolerence of mosques and the Muslim religion in this country? This is not small mindedness, this is just the truth. And one thing I know about Dutchies/Germans, they tell the truth and alot of people don't like that.

Bernie O'Hare said...

LST, you are honestly stating how you feel, and there's nothing wrong w/ that. I appreciate and respect your honesty even when I disagree w/ you.

I've actually visited both the Islamic Center and the Hindu temple in this area. Some time you'll have to go there. They love visitors, and are very warm people. They remind me of the same people I meet in many Christian congregations.

r.moshki said...

Madalyn Murray O'Hair (the late, smartest woman on Earth) always taught: "To the extent that you believe in an invisible, supernatural being that can see you, listen to you and cares about your individual life, to that extent you are insane."

Religion is the poison seeping thruout the Earth, killing and maiming just as it has done for thousands of years.

Now Islam is on the move; who's gonna stop it? Pennsyl-Insania?

The Dis-United States of Hate-merica?


Consigliere said...

i vote in an orthodox temple in allentown. voters of syrian or lebanese heritage have no problem with it. good for betty helwig!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thanks for your note, Consigliere. Good to hear from you again. I don't think voting in any house of worship is a big deal, but absentee ballots should be available for those who get skittish.

LVDem said...

Here's one dutchy that will vote where there is a voting machine... I have family from the Back Mountain in NE PA (ask Gort about those folks). The whole dutchy thing is a load of crap used as an excuse for people who don't want to think about change. I should know: my whole family is dutch (we can be tracked back to the late 1790's). We just use other excuses for our bizarre tendancies.

House of Crayons said...

The same thinking it takes to judge/hate someone based on their political party.

Take solice in your predjudices. And embrace your shame when you finally relise how ignorant you have been.

At one time I was considered to have the worth of a fraction of a man by law. Now, that's just considered stupid.

LSTresidentPIA said...

Prejuidce is not illegal, discrimination is. Everyone is prejudice to some extent.

Why is it that if some groups want to stand up for their values and what they believe in and it is considered small-mindedness and being afraid of change. But other groups who want what they want are making progress and embracing change?

Much of the arab world has been tribal for many years and they have been killing each other for years, now many want to kill Americans. We can't force democrcy on them and should stop trying. Democracy works in this country becuase we agreed to give up certain behaviors that some claim are rights esp under their God.

Polling places should be neutral. The Help America Vote Act will never bring the same equality to voting as the American's with Disabilities Act was suppose to acomplish. Absentee ballots could get out of hand if we start handing them out for every little reason. I think this guy has a legit concern that needs to be adressed.

LSTresidentPIA said...

By the way LV dem I don't know what dutchy thing you are talking about. But I have to ask you would do you say that about the Amish?

Ryan said...

The help america vote act is a joke, especially when the supreme court has stated that you have no right to vote for the president. It's a nice gesture that your state extends, but is entirely unneccesary. Had to vent about that.

But on the subject of the mosque,our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion not freedom from religion. I fear the new trend of equating Democracy with homoginization, it is unhealthy for the individual and the nation. I would love the opportunity to vote in that mosque as opposed to the blocky government building that I vote in. It's so drab.

Bernie, I arrived here after seeing a post of yours on MCALL.COM. I enjoy the humor and the insight, thank you.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Ryan, I'm glad you dropped by and hope to hear from you again. I think the Help America Vote Act should be renamed Help America Not Vote Act.

Anonymous said...

What do you get in a world with out religion or money? Peace.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Very well said.

House of Crayons said...

"LSTresidentPIA said...
Prejuidce is not illegal, discrimination is."

And you are correct. And seeing as discrimination is acting on a predjudice, I think maybe we should examine the morality of our predjudices.

If you're gonna hate, try hating the individual that wronged you, not his neighbors and associates.

I hate Tim McVey, not his pastor and his 5th grade history teacher.

Anonymous said...

That's right. Can't vote at a Mosque because of 9/11.

Give me a break.

I think the real problem is that we have things so easy here in our country that we have too much free time to come up with crap like this to complain about.

It is time for many people to grow up, get over it, and get on with your life. Or just at least admit that you are a bigot.

Bernie O'Hare said...

But even a bigot has a right to vote.


I moved to PA 5 yrs ago and my previous states I have lived in had polling on school grounds. I am Catholic and a veteran of Gulf War (1991), I still do not feel that any place of worship should be used as a place to vote. Our tax dollars are paying for schools and other public properties and that is where voting should be. The first time I voted in the Lehigh Valley was at the public school, and then I received the letter last year that I was moved to the Islamic Center. I was not comfortable going there and did not vote last year either. I dont understand why the public school was not able to use another one of the buildings on the campus they were already using. I agree with the writer that he should not have been denied an absentee ballot.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon Reader, As a Gulf War vet, I think you should be able to vote however you want and if you're uncomfortable in a mosque, then an absentee ballot should be provided. Churches don't turn most of us off here in Pa. It's not really that big a deal, and it's never in the worshiip area. But for those who are uncomfortable, other provisions should be made. It's a small accomodation. Thanks for your post and I hope to hear from you again.


The writer of the article requested an absentee ballot based on "not being comfortable voting in a Mosque" and he was denied. He could have easily "lied" and said he would be out of town, and he would have been granted one with no problem. As stated earlier, I have a problem with voting in the Mosque when my prior place was a public school. This is where my "supposable Whitehall Tax Dollars" are going. Many people I spoke with last year did not vote either because of the same reason. And they will not be voting this year either. I think it is a shame that with the turn out they had last year they would have made changes this year. Maybe by next presidental elections there will be a change, but I highly doubt it.

Bernie O'Hare said...

To Anonymous Reader, Elections officials must recognize that their function is to male it easier, not harder, to vote. They aren't here to disenfranchise us.