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Virginia Adds Voting Precincts, Bucking Trends in South

A polling place sign outside a school
A sign outside a Richmond-area polling place in February. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia cities and counties have added 72 new voting precincts since 2016 and 130 since 2012, bucking a trend in some other Southern states since a key 2013 Supreme Court decision. The 5% growth in precincts since 2012 has been driven by fast-growing Washington D.C. suburbs in places like Prince William County and Loudoun County. 

Tram Nguyen, co-director of the progressive group New Virginia Majority, said the additional precincts would allow voters to spread out more and could reduce wait times. But she said a lot hinges on where the sites are located.

“It’s less about the number of polling locations but more about where they’re located, whether they’re accessible or not,” Nguyen said.

Voting rights groups have sounded the alarm over cuts to polling places in minority communities in states like Georgia and Texas after a 2013 Supreme Court decision overturned parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law previously required cities and counties in Virginia and other Southern states to get federal clearance before making changes to polling sites in counties with substantial minority populations.

The Civil Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a civil rights group, found 1,688 polling place closures across the South (excluding Virginia) from 2012 to 2018. VPM’s analysis of precinct data from the Virginia Department of Elections shows all localities in the commonwealth have either grown the number of precincts or stayed steady since 2012. State law requires precincts to serve no more than 5,000 people; localities must pay the costs associated with opening new ones. 

The number of precincts doesn’t perfectly equate to polling places. Some larger polling sites house voters in multiple precincts. In the City of Salem, for example, election officials centralized five precincts previously located at churches to the Salem Civic Center, which will now house 10 precincts. Dana Oliver, the city’s director of elections, said the change was necessary because churches had closed during the pandemic.

Henrico County moved four polling stations, including three inside assisted living facilities, to existing polling sites where they’ll have separate entrances and staff, according to registrar Mark Coakley. 

The City of Richmond added four new polling places, in part to respond to population changes and greater electoral participation from VCU students, according to Registrar Kirk Showalter. Chesterfield County added five new sites; the county led the state in voter complaints during the 2018 midterm elections, when a judge forced the county to keep two sites open late because of long lines. 

Adrienne Jones, an assistant political science professor at Morehouse College who studies the impact of the Shelby v. Holder verdict, called Virginia’s expansion of voting places “fantastic.” Jones said the poll closures mostly occurred in Republican run states where the GOP also pushed policies like mandatory photo ID. Virginia Democrats eliminated that requirement earlier this year.

“The tactics being used are akin to the same kind of tactics that we saw during Jim Crow,” Jones said.

Sensing that political winds may one day change, some Democrats pushed to recreate sections of the Voting Rights Act in a bill last year. It would have required localities with substantial non-white, non-Hispanic populations to get clearance from the state attorney general before making certain changes, including to polling places. 

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), the bill’s sponsor, said it failed over late-stage negotiations with the state Senate over the annual $159,000 cost of paying for a new state attorney. VanValkenburg said he would propose it again next year, but hoped Congress would act on a proposal from Democrats that advocates say will help undo the Supreme Court decision. 

“There is really no substitute for federal action,” VanValkenburg said. “Until that happens, I think it’s important that states look at protecting voter rights.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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