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Richmond Electoral Board walks back early voting closures

People are showing applauding in the foreground after the electoral board voted to reverse their decision to close early voting centers.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
General Registrar Keith Balmer (left), Vice Chairperson John Ambrose, Chairperson Starlet Stevens and Secretary Joyce Smith attend a Friday City of Richmond Electoral Board meeting.

The move came after the city attorney said the board’s GOP majority lacked legal authority to close two early voting satellite locations.

The GOP-controlled Richmond Electoral Board voted unanimously Friday to offer three early voting locations for 45 days ahead of the general election in November, reversing a decision it made last week to shutter two of the sites. Richmond’s city attorney said the board lacked legal authority to close early voting satellite locations at downtown’s City Hall and Southside’s Hickory Hill Community Center.

The three-member board also voted Friday along party lines not to offer early voting on Sundays, citing staff fatigue.

Critics of the electoral board’s initial decision to close the sites, including Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and City Council President Mike Jones, praised the reversal. They’d argued the closures would have made early voting less accessible for Black and Latino voters.

At Friday’s meeting, board chair Starlet Stevens read a statement defending her vote last week, saying the board initially decided to close two early voting locations to save money. She said the sites at City Hall and Hickory Hill cost the city $100,000 in total last year — but drew fewer than 3,000 voters.

“I will emphatically state that this was not done to suppress any other voters in the city of Richmond,” Stevens said.

The board reversed its decision to close the early voting sites without any debate.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Stevens said she’d only learned the board lacked the authority to close early voting sites after she was contacted by the city attorney and Jones. The City Council passed an ordinance in June specifying the city would offer satellite voting locations at City Hall and Hickory Hill. Early voting is also available at the elections office off Laburnum Avenue near Bryan Park.

The closures could have forced voters in majority Black precincts to travel more than two hours by public transit to cast their ballots ahead of election day, according to an analysis by the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO.

The board’s other Republican member, John Ambrose, told reporters that the electoral board had similarly not offered two satellite voting locations in a December special election, when the board was still under Democratic control. The Hickory Hill location was opened for voting, but not until three weeks after early voting began in that election.

The three members also voted along party lines to close the early voting on Sundays to give staff a break, acting on a motion from Stevens.

“These people to me are human beings,” Stevens said of the electoral staff. “I've known many of them for 20 years or more. And they have families. They have church activities.”

Rae Cousins, a Democrat running to represent an eastern Richmond district in the House of Delegates, said the move to close on Sundays was misguided.

“It’s another barrier to access,” Cousins said.

In a statement, Stoney praised the board’s decision to offer satellite locations but said he was “disappointed” with the decision to not offer early voting on Sundays — “a time where many Black and Brown Richmonders cast their ballots.”

Both parties are pushing early voting ahead of this November’s General Assembly elections. Gov. Glenn Youngkin has launched ad campaigns to convince wary GOP voters to cast early ballots, even as lawmakers from his party opposed legislative efforts to expand early voting.

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