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Obama's precinct shutouts raise Republicans' eyebrows

| Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 11:06 p.m.

HARRISBURG — A baseball pitcher with a 95-mph fastball might toss a shutout, but it's rare for a politician to hold a rival candidate to “zero.”

For that reason, some Republicans cried foul when President Obama got every vote in 50 Philadelphia precincts and six precincts in Allegheny County in November, although no one filed a complaint with election boards.

The precincts account for about 5 percent of Obama's 310,000-vote victory over Republican Mitt Romney in Pennsylvania.

“I can't call it fraud,” said state Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason. Yet he called the precincts with zero Romney votes “suspicious,” and said, “It seems to me to be irregular for that to happen.”

Still, Pennsylvania has company in this instance. Obama blanked Romney in precincts in Cleveland, Chicago and Little Rock.

Conversely, Romney shut out Obama in precincts in several heavily Republican states, particularly Utah, home of the Mormon Church, according to NBC News. Romney was the first Mormon to become a major-party nominee for president.

Precincts, subdivisions of political wards, can be home to as many as several hundred voters or as few as 12. In the Philadelphia and Allegheny County precincts where Romney won no votes, Obama won 17,414.

“Those kinds of numbers certainly do get one thinking about fraud. But, of course, that is not necessarily the case,” said Jack Treadway, author of a book about Pennsylvania elections. “There is no evidence I know of of fraud in multiple states.”

Gleason defends raising the issue after state officials certified the election results.

“You know how you argue with the referee to get the next call? That's exactly what we're doing here,” Gleason said. “All I want is a fair election for everybody. If there is fraud, it will be uncovered. If there isn't, we have to work a lot harder to sell our candidates.”

A lost cause

Republicans can blame themselves for a poor performance in places such as Pittsburgh's predominantly black and Democratic Hill District, where three precincts cast zero votes for Romney, said County Councilman William Russell Robinson. Robinson has represented the neighborhood in city, county and state governments since 1979, and said he never has faced a serious Republican challenger.

The GOP treated the Hill District as a lost cause — ignoring voters there to focus resources on more promising areas — for at least 60 years, Robinson said. As far back as the late K. Leroy Irvis' tenure in the state House, which began in 1959, Hill District elections have been all but decided in Democratic primaries, he said.

After a few generations of not contesting the Democratic Party's stronghold, “what impact were they going to have in the Obama-Romney race?” Robinson asked. “If they had put money in, how many votes would they have gotten? Between zero and none — and they got none.”

They might have had one if Ada Blackman had not gone to visit her son, a retired Boeing worker living in Tacoma.

“I didn't vote at all. I was out of town at the time,” said Blackman, 85, whose Hill District precinct gave no votes to Romney.

Blackman is one of six registered Republicans in the 5th Ward's 14th Precinct. The other four precincts have as few as one registered Republican, according to records.

Blackman knows she's a rarity: a black Republican in a city neighborhood run by Democrats for most of a century. She said friends sometimes tease her about her party affiliation.

An Alabama native, Blackman said she's a holdover from the days before blacks turned away from the party of Abraham Lincoln — a political realignment that began during Franklin Roosevelt's administration in the 1930s and accelerated after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“There has been a remarkable correlation between population density and Democratic voting in presidential elections ever since the New Deal, even before white flight (to the suburbs),” said Jonathan Rodden, a political science professor at Stanford University.

“After the core urban precincts became exclusively African-American, the correlation increased. It has continued to increase over the course of the last several elections, and the presence of a black presidential candidate on the ballot pushed it up even higher,” Rodden said.

A closer look

Four years after Obama became the nation's first black president, “50 (shutout precincts) in Philadelphia is a surprisingly large number,” Rodden said.

But he added, “While credible allegations of fraud should be taken seriously and investigated, the fact that Obama does exceptionally well in urban precincts simply is not necessarily an indicator of fraud.”

Still, when Allegheny County Elections Division Manager Mark Wolosik heard about precincts with zero Romney votes, he said he took a closer look.

“When I saw districts with two or four registered Republicans, I realized it was not something to look into,” Wolosik said.

No one complained of fraud to the Elections Division, Wolosik said. The Philadelphia Election Commission's attorney did not return calls.

The Department of State, which oversees elections, has “no authority to conduct any election-related investigations,” said spokesman Ron Ruman. County and city boards of election have that authority and can refer election irregularities to district attorneys, Ruman said.

In 2004, when both presidential candidates were white, Republican incumbent George W. Bush won zero votes in five Philadelphia precincts and one Allegheny County precinct.

“I can't vouch for every precinct, but it's par for the course to have some African-American precincts with no votes cast for a GOP nominee for president,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

If there was any fraud in these districts, it certainly would be “highly inefficient fraud,” depriving Republicans of just a few votes in a race that Romney lost by 6 million, said Rodden. In the contest for electoral votes, Obama won 332 to Romney's 209.

Robinson expects the GOP to try to make inroads in areas such as the Hill District as minorities and women, both Democratic-friendly groups, continue to make up larger shares of the electorate.

In the meantime, Republicans have Ada Blackman. Her friends pester her to switch parties.

“I'm going to do what I want,” Blackman said. “I'm my own boss.”

Brad Bumsted and Mike Wereschaginare staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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