By Graham Moomaw
The Republican-controlled Richmond Electoral Board won’t be shuttering two early voting sites in Virginia’s capital after all.
A week after deciding not to open two satellite locations for early voting for this fall’s elections due to cost concerns, the three-person board voted unanimously to reverse itself Friday morning following a public outcry that led other state and local officials to point out the move appeared to violate state law.
“The satellites will be open for 45 days,” said Republican board Chairwoman Starlet Stevens, referring to voting sites in South Richmond at the Hickory Hill Community Center and at Richmond’s downtown City Hall building.
Local activists and Democratic officials strongly objected to the planned closure of the two sites, saying it would needlessly restrict voting access for majority-Black neighborhoods and lower-income Richmonders who rely on public transportation.
“Pointing to money is an easy curtain to hide behind,” Richmond NAACP leader James “JJ” Minor said at Friday’s meeting as he urged the board to “reverse the decision immediately.”
The two Republican members — who control the election board in a heavily Democratic city due to a state law that says majority control goes to whichever party won the most recent gubernatorial election — stressed that their concerns were primarily about the cost effectiveness of operating the two voting locations for 45 days. Stevens disputed the accusation the move was an effort to suppress minority votes.
“’There’s no way I want to keep anybody from voting. … I really take offense that that was thrown out at us,” Stevens said.
Shortly after voting to keep the early voting sites open, the board voted 2-1 not to offer early voting on Sundays. That’s a relatively new option available for local election officials, inspired largely by Sunday voter drives organized by Black churches, but local electoral boards aren’t required to offer it.
Stevens portrayed Sunday voting as a drain on resources, particularly the election workers whom she said would have to spend even more time staffing polling places on the weekends if Sunday voting were offered.
“That’s just more than I think we want to put our people through,” Stevens said.
Democratic board member Joyce Smith opposed the Sunday voting decision.
Though it appears the board has legal power not to open voting sites on Sundays, multiple legal authorities, including the Richmond city attorney’s office, had indicated the board could not shutter the early voting locations altogether. Voting access laws the General Assembly passed in 2020 when Democrats had full control of state government empower local governing bodies to make decisions about early voting locations. In Richmond, the City Council had already designated the two other sites as satellite locations, and city attorneys said the electoral board had no power to overrule the decision.
On Friday, Republican board members conceded the law didn’t appear to be on their side. But board member John Ambrose noted the concerns about satellite voting costs predated the board’s shift to a Republican majority.
For a special election held in February that was triggered by the death of former Richmond-area Congressman Donald McEachin, Ambrose said, the board’s Democratic majority had chosen not to open the satellite voting site at City Hall.
“No one pointed out that the law was incorrect,” Ambrose said. “The law has now been clarified. … We hope this controversy will encourage people to utilize the early voting locations throughout the city.”
The Richmond GOP echoed that sentiment in a press release that called the voter suppression accusations “completely false.”
“This shameless attempt to manufacture a controversy where none exists does a massive disservice to voters in Richmond and to the work of the Richmond Electoral Board to make early voting secure and accessible to everyone,” the Richmond GOP said in its statement.
Special elections typically have lower turnout than regularly scheduled elections held in November. A little more than 32,000 Richmond voters cast a ballot in the special congressional election in February. More than 69,000 Richmond residents voted in the 2022 midterms.
Stevens said 2,844 voters cast a ballot last November at the two early voting locations in question, a number she said she found difficult to square with the $100,000 expense of operating them.
Some Democrats had seized on the issue to attack Gov. Glenn Youngkin, saying the Richmond board seemed to be cutting off access to early voting for some voters just as Youngkin and his GOP allies launched a new initiative encouraging their supporters to vote early.
But the Youngkin administration did not defend the move and indicated it too felt the Richmond board wasn’t in compliance with the law.
This week, the Virginia Department of Elections, run by Youngkin-appointed Commissioner Susan Beals, sent out new guidance to GOP-controlled local boards across the state encouraging them to read up on the laws governing early voting and clarifying that city councils and county boards have the ability to pass ordinances establishing early voting locations.
The agency also noted that because satellite voting sites are the same as polling places according to a 2021 advisory opinion from former Attorney General Mark Herring, decisions to close them are also subject to a new voting rights law meant to prevent drastic changes to voting access that might disproportionately impact minority voters. That law, which Democrats passed in 2021, requires local officials to have those decisions precleared by the attorney general’s office, mirroring minority voting protections in the federal Voting Rights Act.
“Since a satellite office is treated as a polling place under Virginia law, the removal, relocation or consolidation of any voter satellite office is subject to preclearance,” the elections agency memo stated.
Stevens said no one from Youngkin’s team asked her to reverse the move.
Addressing the Richmond board Friday, Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico, said the purpose of the voting reforms Democrats passed was to “meet people where they are.”
“They love the convenience of the laws we passed,” Willett said.
In a statement, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney applauded the board’s reversal on the satellite voting sites but said he was disappointed with the board’s new move on Sunday voting.
“While I celebrate their decision to reverse course, I cannot hide the fact that I am disappointed to see them vote to close Sunday early voting locations – a time where many Black and Brown Richmonders cast their ballots,” Stoney said.
Early voting begins Sept. 22.
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