With Less Than A Week To Go Until Election, What's Up With Potential Voter Suppression In Worcester And Across The Commonwealth?


By regional standards, Tea Party forces in central Massachusetts are about as aggressive as the far-right gets. Months ago, for example, members of the Worcester legion publicly rebuked other Bay State Tea Party outfits, claiming that they strayed too far off of debt reform, and became preoccupied with less important social issues. More generally speaking, when Worcester Tea Partiers want something, they fight their tails off for it. And this election season, what they seem to want more than anything else is to defeat Elizabeth Warren.

Enter Bonnie Lund-Johnson – former leader of the Seven Hills Tea Party, GOP state committeewoman for the First Worcester District, and the Freddy Krueger in every voter advocate's nightmares from Boston to Springfield. In all of her leadership roles, Johnson has been highly successful in recruiting other conservatives to sign up as poll workers. She says that Activate Worcester, a political action committee that she helped form earlier this year, seeks to counterbalance the intense glut of Democrats who run the polls in Worcester's 50 precincts.

Photo via Go Local

Though Johnson led a similar charge last year with her Seven Hills brigade, her Activate Worcester squad commenced this April with an event featuring Senator Scott Brown. Billed as a “Become a Poll Worker” summit, the meeting attracted about 200 people, many of whom were interested in the PAC's campaign worker courses, which Johnson offers in addition to the mandated training that the city gives. Activate Worcester also provides lessons on how volunteers can be “effective” poll observers.

“I do trainings, but for different things,” says Johnson. “I train observers in what they can and can't do . . . I train them on where they need to sit, and what to look for. For me, I watch for how the [inactive voters] are processed. I just think it's poor training – in September, I saw an inactive be handed a ballot without filling out a certificate. I've been to between 30 and 40 of our precincts, and different precincts handle things in different ways. That's when you know something's wrong.”

As some critics expected – mostly on account of Activate Worcester's ties to the controversial national campaign True the VoteJohnson and her allies spurred much outrage during the September primary election. In the vicinity of one polling place in particular – at the Murray/Wellington apartments, a low-income community – people were reportedly harassed en route to cast their ballots. Speaking to journalists, District 4 City Councilor Sarai Rivera said that several of her constituents claimed that poll workers illegally asked them to produce identification.

Rivera image via Worcester Mag

Of course, the alleged uninvited actions of some poll observers were perfectly legal – like instances in which Tea Party affiliates are said to have photographed and videotaped voters at precincts. But then there's the sleazier, grayer area shit, like deliberately misinforming non-English speaking immigrants. Still, despite cries of voter suppression, Johnson denies having nefarious intentions: “It has been mischaracterized,” she says. “It's all absolute blatant lies. Show me the proof. There is none. N-O-N-E.”

Framingham resident, attorney, and activist Deborah Butler is calling nonsense on Activate Worcester. She says that the Worcester Election Commission – which chose not to investigate any primary shenanigans – is tainted by members who are Tea Party sympathizers. Last week, Butler filed a written statement with the Secretary of State to secure an injunction against the WEC from overseeing elections until a formal investigation is conducted into “possible voter suppression and intimidation” at the Murray and Wellington apartments on September 6.

While Butler navigates legal avenues that won't likely yield results before next Tuesday, Johnson is gearing up for battle. She says that Activate Worcester will have between 60 and 80 men and women working polls, and another 10 to 30 volunteering as observers. As a result, rival groups from the left like Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts are also preparing, along with the ACLU, for what promises to be a long and tedious election night. And while Johnson says that her group is staying in the Worcester area, her adversaries aren't taking chances.

“I'm well aware of what their tactics are – they're the only ones getting people signed up as poll workers,” says Wilnelia Rivera, political director for Neighbor to Neighbor. Rivera charges that while Johnson claims to support clean elections, her derogatory comments toward welfare recipients on the Activate Worcester Facebook wall tell a different story. In the past, Johnson has been dually critical of Neighbor to Neighbor, arguing that the tactics they use to assist low-income voters in communities of color often violate election laws.

Rivera continues: “We hope that it's going to be smooth sailing, but we're prepared for the same thing that happened in November – and besides Worcester we're prepared for it in places like Boston and Springfield . . . Activate Worcester doesn't agree with the kind of candidates who our membership supports, so this really poses a huge challenge to us. In the long run, what this indicates to us is that we have to really learn how to work with allies so we can deal with this problem here in Massachusetts.”

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