Michael Nutter on Black Panther alarm: "It's nonsense"

Philadelphia's mayor says turnout is high, voting is proceeding smoothly and Republican noise about intimidation is just that. A Salon reporter finds steady turnout all around the area.

Published November 4, 2008 11:18PM (EST)

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is officially sick of the alleged Black Panther guy, who's gotten more airtime on Fox News today than Joe the Plumber.

"It's nonsense. It's a guy standing on the street with some kind of outfit on," Nutter told Salon by phone this afternoon. "A guy standing on the street, if he's not within 10 feet of the actual voting, he's within the law. If he's not doing anything -- touching anybody, interfering with the right to vote -- this is America, he has the right to stand on the sidewalk in whatever outfit he wants to stand there in, with the exception of his birthday suit."

Republicans have not been amused by the Black Panther mini-scandal, but Nutter said they'd have to try harder if they wanted to find evidence of problems in Philadelphia's election. "They gotta find something to complain about," Nutter said. "We have 1,681 polling places here in the city. We got hundreds of thousands of people voting ... And we got one guy standing on the sidewalk, and now the fate of this entire candidacy is revolving around a guy standing on the sidewalk?"

Voter turnout in Philadelphia, especially in the city's black neighborhoods, could be the key to winning Pennsylvania for Barack Obama. (Campaign aides on both sides say their voters are flocking to the polls, for what that's worth.) Nutter said Democrats should feel good about what he's seen driving around the city Tuesday. "I was number 215 at my polling place at quarter to ten," he said. "I've been voting there since '94, and I haven't seen any numbers like that, ever."

In Philadelphia, three vastly different precincts were all producing impressive numbers. In a working-class, predominantly black division in the Germantown section, 360 people had voted by 1 p.m. -- compared with a total of about 300 overall in 2004.

"Turnout is huge, colossal," said Hal Sawyer, the local judge of elections (every division has one). "We had people here at six in the morning. When we arrived, they were already here."

In suburban Hatboro, Pa., a typical suburban borough north of the city in Montgomery County, a 3 p.m. visit found that 558 of a total of 1,200 people registered had voted already. The precinct's 2004 total had been "about 600," said a poll worker. Hatboro's split in 2004 was 51-48 for John Kerry, neatly mirroring the state as a whole. This moderate, affluent area used to be a Republican stronghold, and its desertion of the GOP over the last two decades is generally considered the main cause of the state's slight Democratic lean. A completely unscientific survey of afternoon voters trailing out of the municipal building seemed to indicate that Hatboro is splitting down the middle again.

And in the largely white Catholic enclave of northeast Philadelphia, at a division at Holy Family University, turnout at 4 p.m. was 490 of a total of 1,025 registered. The name of this division may ring a bell if you've been listening to the Republican National Committee today. In a press release, the RNC named Holy Family as one of eight voting sites having serious problems. But the local judge of elections, Margaret Lobo, says otherwise.

"[Rush] Limbaugh deserves a slap on the face," said Lobo, accusing the radio host of spreading rumors that it would be difficult to vote. She told Salon a voter had claimed a machine wasn't working, but when the repairman arrived, he found no problems.

In fact, none of the precincts visited reported any serious problems with election administration, which jibes with what Nutter said. The Germantown division, theoretically the most likely of the three to include voters vulnerable to disenfranchisement, had only needed to hand out six provisional ballots.

What could still pose a problem is if lines get long as the polls start to close, at 8 p.m. Eastern. By law, anyone who's in line then can stay and wait as long as it takes to cast their ballot. The trick will be keeping them there.

"Stay in line," Nutter said. "Be patient -- you came to vote, finish what you started. Some folks have been waiting eight years to get the Republicans out of the White House. You can wait an hour."

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

MORE FROM Mike Madden

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

MORE FROM Gabriel Winant

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

War Room