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Richmond officials: Electoral board’s vote to not open two early voting sites could be illegal

A person wearing a red sweater is obscured by a white voting booth.
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
A person casts their vote in Richmond.

If the decision stands, that would leave only the general registrar’s office at 2134 W. Laburnum Ave. open for all of Richmond's early votes ahead of Nov. 7.

Early voting turnout in Richmond could be impacted by the Republican-led Richmond Electoral Board, which decided earlier this week to shutter satellite voting precincts at City Hall and Hickory Hill Community Center.

The three-member Electoral Board administers elections in the city, which includes overseeing ballot counting and approving poll workers. As first reported by Axios Richmond, the board cited "budgetary concerns" as the primary reason for closing both sites.

If the decision stands, that would leave only the general registrar’s office at 2134 W. Laburnum Ave. open for all early votes ahead of Nov. 7’s Election Day.

Richmond officials have expressed outrage. As reported by the Virginia Mercury, Mayor Levar Stoney threatened to sue over the board’s decision, calling it targeted voter suppression. A spokesperson for Gov. Glenn Youngkin also told the Mercury that state law clearly states a local governing body has the right to establish satellite precincts.

This is the first election to be administered by the board’s new Republican majority, which includes Chair C. Starlet Stevens and Vice Chair John Ambrose. State law requires the governor’s political party to hold a majority on all local election boards. A third member, Democrat Joyce K. Smith, acts as secretary.

City Council President Mike Jones, who represents the 9th District, called for Stevens’ resignation over social media late Thursday.

“If they don’t know the law pertaining to elections and fair elections,” Jones told VPM News on Friday, “they are sorely misinformed, not able to do their jobs, not getting the basic tools to discharge their duties and they’re going to make a ton of mistakes.”

The office of Richmond City Attorney Laura Drewry says it’s City Council’s job — not the electoral board’s — to make decisions about early voting locations.

At a glance, state law appears to back that up: “The governing body of any county or city may establish, by ordinance, voter satellite offices to be used in the locality for absentee voting in person.” The electoral board is only cited in state code relating to satellite voting locations for accessibility purposes, emergencies that render locations unusable or inaccessible, and in its ability to approve a select exemption on distributing campaign materials outside of those locations.

Axios Richmond reported that the early voting locations that the Richmond Electoral Board is closing accounted for nearly 3,000 early ballots in last year’s midterms.

According to Alex Keena, an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, those can be make-or-break numbers. It could be just enough to affect turnout results for contentious ballot referendums — like the new casino referendum approved by Richmond Circuit Court.

“We saw a few years ago that that was razor-tight. So that certainly matters,” Keena said. “If we’re talking about a few thousand votes here or there, [it] could have big implications down the road.”

The 2021 ballot question on a proposed Southside casino failed to pass by a margin of roughly 1,500 votes, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. A possible 2022 referendum was floated, but the city ultimately rescinded that request.

Keena says changing things around right before any election is also just bad form for election officials — state law generally prohibits any changes within 60 days of an election. (There are roughly 70-ish business days and 102 calendar days until Nov. 7.)

That it’s also a politically critical, near-historic one for Virginia shouldn’t go amiss: All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs. Nov. 7 will also see the first general election use of the long-awaited and thoroughly litigated redrawn districts, which have already led to a series of resignations, retirements and intraparty electoral fights.

Richmond’s Electoral Board will meet at 10 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 4 to discuss satellite precincts and Sunday voting, according to its published agenda.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
Dawnthea M. Price Lisco (dawn-TAY-uh, she/her) is the managing editor at VPM News.