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Black Seniors In St. Louis Fear Coronavirus, Long Lines Could Keep People From Voting

Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio

Louise Wilkerson can’t remember the first time she voted, but she’ll never forget the reception a group of white election workers gave her at a predominantly white polling station in the late 1960s.

As she cast her vote, the officials looked at her in stunned silence. But she was undeterred. Her parents, who lived in north St. Louis, made sure she knew how important it was for Black people to vote.

“Politics controls virtually everything in our lives,” said Wilkerson, 75. “I began to realize that the tax rates and things like job discrimination and public policies were determined by who was elected to office. And I realized that I had to vote and I had to try to get everybody else to vote.”

Wilkerson has voted in nearly every election since then and has long encouraged others to vote. But this year, she’s worried that because of the coronavirus pandemic, many older Black people will be discouraged from voting or have difficulty casting their ballots.

Health officials are encouraging people 65 and older, who face greater risk from the virus, to vote by mail or absentee ballot.

Wilkerson said the vote by mail options might be challenging for older Black people, but she is mostly concerned about relying on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver their ballots to the Board of Elections on time.

This summer, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy proposed to cut costs to the Postal Service, but his reduction plans caused many seniors to question the post office’s delivery system, Wilkerson said.

“We’ve got Postmaster General DeJoy trying to kneecap the U.S. Postal Service. We've never had an attack on the Postal Service like this, it's outrageous,” Wilkerson said.

Many Black seniors are used to voting in person. Eighty-one-year-old Amelia Atkins of north St. Louis doesn’t even use the polling machines to vote; she normally casts her vote by paper ballot because she doesn’t trust electronic voting practices. Atkins feels voting absentee is best for her at the moment, even though she doesn’t trust the post office.

“We wanted to do mail-in ballots, but the post office is so messed up,” Atkins said.

In the August primary elections, Atkins was driven to her precinct to cast her ballot curbside. She said the service was quick, but others found it difficult. Alderwoman Pam Boyd, D-27th Ward, said she received complaints from constituents saying some of the polling stations in her area did not have enough election workers to service the curbside voting area.

“In Northwest [Northwest Academy of Law] they didn’t have the curbside, and one of the people at the polls said we got curbside people here, and it’s no one here,” Boyd said.

Boyd said most people who live in her ward are older African Americans who like to go to the polls because they fought for their right to vote. But when she heard some polling stations were lacking poll workers and not abiding by the health officials guidelines on voting during the coronavirus pandemic, she was furious.

“I had kept asking the Board of Elections before the election, are you going to have them where they take people's temperature and nobody will respond?” Boyd said. “So they had nobody when they came in to have them sanitize their hands, they just had it sitting on the table, so most people gonna walk past it. Then they didn't have the social distancing in there, and then they didn't have the people wearing masks — the workers.”

Boyd said she is worried that the inadequate number of poll workers and insufficient measures to protect voters from the virus will discourage Black people from voting.

She also is concerned that some of her constituents may have to drive to another polling site, because there are fewer voting stations due to the pandemic.

In March, the city had 105 polling stations, and for the August primaries there were 99 stations.

The city lost six polling stations because officials decided not to use senior citizen facilities as voting locations to help limit the spread of the virus, said Gary Stoff, the city’s Republican director of elections.

For the November election, the city will have 100 polling places available for voting.

With so many changes to the voting process this year, older Black voters should not get discouraged and plan to vote in any circumstance, said Alonza Patrick, a former board member of the A Philip Randolph Institute's St. Louis chapter who has been driving people in St. Louis to and from the polls for over 40 years. He said Black senior citizens cannot let long lines or Postal Service concerns scare them away from casting their vote.

Patrick, 80, said he knows some Black people in north St. Louis do not believe their vote matters and do not care to vote because “they don’t see many changes in the neighborhood, what they see is more tear down than fix up.”

“That’s where it all begins,” Patrick said. “If you got a local issue then you can bring it up to your local politicians.”

Besides driving people to the polls, he also notes and reports to election officials about what is going on at the polling stations to make sure people are not experiencing challenges that would discourage people from voting.

In the city’s special elections in June, Patrick noticed people were waiting in lines for hours at one site in north St. Louis.

“At some of these polls that we've visited by taking people to vote, we've seen long lines. So what I decided to do is go inside and find out why the lines were so long,” he said. “What I found out is that we didn't have enough machines. We didn't have enough tellers, and the people who were checking off the people to vote were not in a hurry to do it.”

Patrick said north St. Louis polling stations tend to have more problems than stations in other areas of the city.

He worries that the problems will discourage older voters. But he also is concerned that young Black people who have been marching to save Black lives will not take that passion to the polling stations.

“I'm hoping that the young folks out there marching, that it's going to encourage them to register before and cast a vote,” Patrick said.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Louise Wilkerson (right) said she has voted in nearly every election that she recalls. She said she knows African Americans are often leery of the voting process, but they should vote no matter what because people died for their right to vote.
Louise Wilkerson /
Louise Wilkerson (right) said she has voted in nearly every election that she recalls. She said she knows African Americans are often leery of the voting process, but they should vote no matter what because people died for their right to vote.

Andrea Henderson joined St. Louis Public Radio in March 2019, where she covers race, identity and culture as part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America. Andrea comes to St. Louis Public Radio from NPR, where she reported for the race and culture podcast Code Switch and produced pieces for All Things Considered. Andrea’s passion for storytelling began at a weekly newspaper in her hometown of Houston, Texas, where she covered a wide variety of stories including hurricanes, transportation and Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Inauguration. Her art appreciation allowed her to cover arts and culture for the Houston African-American business publication, Empower Magazine. She also covered the arts for Syracuse’s Post-Standard and The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.