New Docs Show Florida Official Didn’t Hesitate To Yank Poll Site From Mosque

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Newly released documents reveal the speed with which a south Florida elections official decided to remove a polling site from a local mosque over complaints from residents who were outraged by the idea of casting their votes at a Muslim place of worship.

Back in April, Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher, a Democrat, invited the Islamic Center of Boca Raton to serve as a poll site. But documents obtained by TPM through a public records request show Bucher swiftly and deliberately started the process of finding a replacement polling site less than a week after her office began receiving angry calls and emails from constituents in late June.

The documents show that around June 25, voters in precinct 4170 received cards informing them that their polling site had been changed to the Islamic center due to redistricting. Some then contacted Bucher to express their dismay.

“This is truly not a neutral place,” read one email from a local resident. “As a history major, to have people not of islamic faith in the building makes those people enemies, at the very least to the fanatics [sic].”

In one email sent early on June 29, a voter chastised Bucher for her “bad taste” in choosing the center, calling her “part of the problem.”

“We are going to put together a team of protesters and Reporters on this if you can’t secure a better location that is not such a controversial place for such disturbing times over Islam and IsIs … I [sic] asking you as republican and a Christian to find a non-discriminate location,” the voter wrote.

Bucher forwarded that particular email to her staff a few hours later with a note asking them to look into an alternate site.

“Looks like this is becoming a bigger problem than I thought,” she wrote. “Can we see if there is anywhere else we can move to.”

Bucher’s deputy, Charmaine Kelly, replied that she would look for a new site “immediately.”

“Lots of angry and extremely vocal voters,” Kelly said to Bucher, who was apparently on vacation at the time. “Thank you for making the decision to move it out of that location.”

The same morning, Bucher told Kelly she could begin telling voters they were looking for a new location.

“Ask them as they may have a recommendation” for a site, Bucher wrote.

Those emails bolster claims made by Islamic Center president Bassem Alhalabi, civil rights groups, and many local clergy that Bucher caved to the Islamophobic complaints of a select group of voters.

The documents also suggest that Bucher, who is running for re-election to the nonpartisan post this fall and gained a reputation as a fiery progressive during her years in the Florida legislature, made the decision to remove the poll site from the mosque unilaterally and without informing officials at the Islamic center.
Emails show Palm Beach Elections Specialist Rachel West repeatedly asked other staffers if the office should reach out to notify Alhalabi.

Emails show that on July 6, West identified Spanish River Library, located slightly outside the boundaries of the voting precinct, as a replacement poll site. Bucher approved of the library as an “acceptable” choice on July 7, and West then contacted Boca Raton City Manager Pam Nees to formalize the library as the new polling site.

Alhalabi maintains he didn’t learn that his mosque was no longer a polling site until the next day, when local reporters began calling him to ask how he felt about it. He told TPM in a previous interview that he was “very upset” by the decision and blindsided by the way he learned the news.

Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie, who apparently had not yet been informed of the decision to relocate the site, sent Bucher an email on July 8 offering help in finding a new location.

“I have had several constituents express concern over their polling place being relocated to the Islamic Center of Boca Raton,” Haynie told her. “If you would like assistance with finding an alternate location, please let me know.”

Bucher finally explained the change to reporters on July 13, releasing a statement in which she said she’d changed the site in response to some 50 calls from “uncomfortable” constituents, most of them anonymous and some of whom threatened to impede voting at the mosque on Election Day.

The controversy has riled the community ever since. Christine Spain, a Republican running against Bucher for elections supervisor, told TPM that Bucher had put voters in “harm’s way” by choosing an election site that espoused “Sharia law.” The documents obtained by TPM also show that a new flood of voters emailed and called the elections office to either praise or criticize Bucher for her decision after it made headlines.

View some of those documents below.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
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