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Election Protection in Richmond, VA

by Daphne P. Hsu, City Project Staff Attorney

Election Protection volunteer stands in front of a polling place. | Photo by Daphne P. Hsu/The City Project

I looked up a flight of stairs at Main Street Station. Each step would be a barrier to voting for someone with limited mobility. As I approached the top of the steps, I finally saw a sign for curbside voting posted on the door. I talked to the head of the precinct and asked her to place the sign at street level.

In Virginia, voters over the age of 65 and those with disabilities may vote outside the polling place upon request. The curbside voting sign needed to be seen from the curb or it would not work. A poll worker came with me to move the sign so it could be easily seen.

Virginia’s thirteen electoral votes were up for grabs in this presidential election. No one knew who would win the election. The City Project was in Richmond to protect our right to vote and to ensure that the election process was fair. We are committed to equal justice and democracy. The City Project worked on Election Day in Columbus, Ohio in 2004 and Miami, Florida in 2008 to ensure that every person can exercise their right to vote.

We focused our efforts in Richmond this Election Day for several reasons. First, people may be confused about Virginia’s new voter identification law. Second, most Virginians must vote on Election Day. Virginia does not have early voting and requires voters to provide an excuse before they can obtain an absentee ballot. Last, we had concerns that there might be voter suppression in the disproportionately black city based on a history by the commonwealth of past practices restricting the opportunity to register or vote under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

We were working with the non-partisan Election Protection coalition. My partner, a volunteer from Washington, D.C., and I visited four precincts throughout the day.

At Fairmont House, an independent living community for seniors, a poll worker using a cane was operating the elevator to take people to the polling place upstairs.

Photo by Daphne P. Hsu/The City Project

At Woodville Elementary School, I noticed the curbside voting sign was posted inside the polling place. I told a poll worker inside the polling place that the sign should be posted outside where people could see. As I waited for a poll worker to fix the problem, a car pulled up next to the curb. A lady driving an elderly woman asked me about curbside voting.

The elderly woman cast a ballot.

The issues that arose on Election Day surprised me. I was expecting many questions about which forms of identification were acceptable under the new voter ID law. Instead, I found poll workers did not know when a person is allowed to cast a provisional ballot and people confused about where to vote.

A voter advocate at the elementary school approached us for help. Election officials had told someone that he was convicted felon and thus ineligible to vote. The man told her that he had never been arrested, let alone, convicted of a crime. At the very least I told her, he should be able to cast a provisional ballot. I provided the voter advocate with citations to both federal and state law regarding provisional ballots.

He cast a ballot.

At Fourth Baptist Church, the head of the precinct talked to me briefly about his precinct. By 3 p.m. more than half of the approximately 1,400 registered voters in his precinct had already voted. We talked about provisional ballots. I read to him parts of the Virginia and federal statutes regarding provisional ballots. He wanted to follow the law and serve the voters. I discovered he did not have the most recent “what if” guide from the Virginia State Board of Elections which had a better explanation of the provisional ballot rules than the old guide. We provided him with the revised guide.

Back at the elementary school, a mother with her two-year-old son asked me where she should vote. She had recently moved and had sent in a change of address form. I discovered that her name was still on the pollbook at her old precinct. I advised her that she should return to her old precinct to vote.

The mom needed a ride. A voter advocate overheard our conversation. She asked a woman leaving the polling place if she would be willing to give the mom a ride to her precinct. The answer was yes.

They left to cast her ballot.

I do not know who she voted for, but I consider it a win for democracy. For The City Project, each ballot cast meant success. Without the efforts of the election workers, the voter advocates, the many volunteers, Election Protection, and the citizens who sometimes waited in line for hours, a successful election would not have been possible regardless of who won.