By Graham Moomaw
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and his Democratic allies are threatening a lawsuit over a decision by the Republican-controlled Richmond Electoral Board to limit early voting sites in Virginia’s heavily Democratic capital.
The Richmond city attorney’s office agreed that the move “violates state law” in a letter urging the electoral board to reverse course. Under state law, the attorney’s office said, the elected Richmond City Council has the power to make decisions about early voting locations, not the unelected electoral board.
Earlier this week, the two-person GOP majority on that board voted to offer early voting only at the city’s main voter registration office, without the two satellite locations previously used to make voting more convenient for people who rely on public transit or live in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in South Richmond. The board cited budgetary concerns for its decision to not open the two satellite locations this year, according to Axios Richmond, which first reported the move.
Richmond officials have said they budgeted money specifically to cover the $100,000 cost of operating the two satellite voting sites. Though a strong majority of early voting in Richmond takes place at the main election office, roughly a quarter of the city’s in-person early votes in the 2022 midterms were cast at the two satellite locations, according to the mayor.
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Stoney and others denounced the move to cut the three voting locations to one, portraying it as a targeted voter suppression attempt that’s not permitted under the law. A possible Democratic candidate for governor in 2025, Stoney drew a contrast between the actions of Richmond Republicans and the recent embrace of early voting by Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the state GOP.
“Why is Governor Youngkin making it harder to vote in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods? I want him to answer that question,” Stoney said. “Is it truly early voting for all? Or is it simply early voting for some?”
Though Youngkin didn’t appear to have a direct role in the Richmond board’s decision, Democratic critics suggested he bears responsibility for the actions of board members nominated by his party.
“He says he supports early voting,” said Aaron Mukerjee, the Democratic Party of Virginia’s voter protection director. “He could actually make a phone call to his own party, in his own backyard. But we’re not holding our breath.”
Asked for a response, Youngkin’s office indicated that it too believes the board doesn’t have the authority to make the decision.
“Virginia code states that voting satellite offices are established by a local governing body, not the electoral board,” said Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter.
Under Virginia’s to-the-victor-go-the-spoils system of election administration, the party that won the last gubernatorial election gains majority control of both the State Board of Elections and all 133 city and county electoral boards. Local boards shifted to GOP control this year due to the timeline of when previous board members’ terms ended.
Stoney called on the Richmond board to hold an emergency meeting to reverse its decision and promised legal action would follow if it did not.
There was some indication Thursday the board was already having second thoughts about its decision. After the Democratic press conference, the Richmond election office announced the board would meet again Aug. 4 at 10 a.m. to “discuss early voting at the satellite locations.”
Council President Mike Jones said the council has already made its decision clear.
“We as a council will not ask a department or a division to do something that we have not empowered them to do,” Jones said. “They have the money. They have the resources. So what’s the issue?”
In an email Thursday, Richmond Electoral Board Chairwoman Starlet Stevens, one of the board’s two Republicans, said the “cost factor” was the primary reason for her vote.
“The cost is astronomical when you look at how many voters are coming in to vote at these satellites vs. what the City of Richmond is spending,” Stevens said.
A package of voting access laws General Assembly Democrats passed in 2020 dramatically expanded early and absentee voting and specified that governing bodies have the power to “establish” satellite offices used for early voting. The legislation making that change canceled out earlier language granting that power to electoral boards. The new law lets the local governing body create “as many satellite offices as it deems necessary” as long as there’s adequate funding to run them.
Richmond has already passed an ordinance designating the city’s downtown City Hall building and South Richmond’s Hickory Hill Community Center as early voting locations. Those sites were added partly to alleviate voting access concerns raised in 2020 after the city moved its main voter registration office from City Hall to a new building that offered extra space and parking but was more out of the way for people without cars.
In a letter to the electoral board, City Attorney Laura K. Drewry said the council “has not enacted any legislation to change or abolish these locations as voter satellite offices.” The board’s attempt to scrap them, she said, “conflicts with the council’s legislative power to expand access to the polls for its voters.”
“As such, the board has no authority to deny absentee voting in person at these two locations and we respectfully request that the board’s decision be reversed,” Drewry wrote.
It’s unclear whether anyone raised the apparent legal issue prior to the board’s decision to restrict the voting sites. When asked whether the city attorney’s office advises the electoral board during its meetings to ensure compliance with the law, Stoney said only that the office was reviewing the issue.
Pamela Smith, a 71-year-old community leader who lives in South Richmond, pointed to the large contingent of elderly voters at Thursday’s news conference as a sign of how many people depend on the early voting site at Hickory Hill. Without it, she said, older people like her who have medical conditions but want to vote in person would either have to travel across town or face the hassle of potential lines on Election Day.
Asked what she would say to the board members who made the decision, Smith said: “Would you do this to your grandmother?”
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