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Virginia voters worry about voter suppression despite recent legislative changes

Where you cast your vote this election might seem a bit unusual
Posted at 6:11 PM, Oct 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-29 18:21:54-04

RICHMOND, Va. - Despite the commonwealth recently passing a number of laws to make it easier to vote, some Virginians are concerned over voter suppression.

Michael Fauntroy, an associate professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, said political campaigns have a long history of trying to suppress Black voters.

“I think it happens in every election,” Fauntroy said. “The extent to how sophisticated an operation it is will depend on the sophistication of the campaign and the resources they have to go out and identify voters and try to discourage them from voting.”

Carlette Bailey, a Richmond resident, said she fears ballots will be lost, stolen, or disappear before they have a chance to be counted.

“My main concern is the mail-in votes and making sure they're there on time,” Bailey said. “The votes have to come from our mailbox and be where they have to be on Election Day so they can be counted.”

The Democratic Party of Virginia recently sued the Richmond General Registrar, J. Kirk Showalter, over an effort to get a list of names whose absentee ballots were rejected because of ballot errors. The organization said they wanted to inform voters of the ballot errors and that other localities had provided similar lists.

Tony Whitehead, another Richmond resident, said he is concerned about the possibility of ballots being stolen from mailboxes by groups who want the opposing party to win.

In early October six outdoor mailboxes were broken into in Henrico and Chesterfield counties and Richmond. The United States Postal Service and Virginia Department of Elections are currently investigating the incident, but it is unknown if the mailboxes contained ballots.

“You can’t really point the finger as to who's doing it, but if my ballots are stolen, that's voter suppression right there,” Whitehead said. “That one vote that’s been suppressed could be the difference between who you want in office and who I want in office, and that's just not right.”

Bailey and Whitehead are not alone. A number of Americans are concerned about their votes being accurately counted this election. Democrats are more concerned than Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center. Forty-six percent of Democrats believe the election will be conducted fairly and accurately, while 75% of Republicans share the same sentiment.

Fauntroy said Black voters in Virginia will be subjected to less suppression than Black voters in states such as Georgia and Florida with majority Republican leadership.

“The Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, and other leadership in Virginia have been drawing enough attention to this that voters will know what's at stake,” Fauntroy said.

The Virginia General Assembly has recently taken steps to make it easier to vote, including laws that allow no-excuse absentee voting, early voting that starts 45 days prior to an election and making Election Day a state holiday.

Legislators also passed a bill that repeals a 2013 Republican-backed law requiring a photo ID to vote. The new law also makes additional forms of identification acceptable, such as a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, or other government document that shows the name and address of the voter.

Fauntroy said that photo ID bills are an example of Black voter suppression.

Fauntroy said voter suppression has occurred more frequently since the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County V. Holder, which found part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. The decision struck down a formula that required certain states which had discriminatory laws, such as requiring tests to vote, to obtain federal approval before changing voting laws.

Fauntroy said that almost immediately after the ruling North Carolina moved forward with voter ID laws that would not have passed if the preclearance provisions had remained.

“In the 2014 elections, we saw a number of Republicans winning seats because of redrawn districts and voter ID laws that they would not have won,” he said.

Fauntroy said national voter suppression in this election will be a multifaceted effort coming from different levels. This could include litigation, reducing the amount of early voting locations, and moving or eliminating polling locations that could make it harder for people of color to vote.

With no formula dictating which states obtain federal review, communities or individuals who feel they are being targeted by discriminatory voting laws must file lawsuits themselves or rely on ones filed by outside advocates or the Justice Department, according to an opinion piece in The Atlantic. This happens often after laws have been passed.

Federal legislators have introduced bills to establish new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain federal approval before changing voting laws, but the measures haven’t advanced.

Local Majority, a progressive political action committee, said common voter suppression strategies include restricting absentee voting, reducing the number of polling places in a jurisdiction and disenfranchising citizens with past criminal records.

A joint resolution introduced in the 2019 General Assembly session that would allow felons to vote was continued until the 2021 session.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, noted that the challenges the country faces aren’t new. The fate of the country is on the line and with that, Black voters and voices matter now more than ever, McClellan said.

“When we have gained social, political, and economic power, there has always been a swift and violent backlash, but we cannot and have not been deterred,” McClellan said. “We owe it to our ancestors, our children, and their children, to vote and help shape the future of our country because democracy and our very existence are on the ballot.”

By Brandon Shillingford
Capital News Service