The Virginia Beach City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to delay moving the city’s primary in-person absentee voting location for this November’s elections to a building owned by incumbent state Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach), who will also appear on the ballot.
The City Manager’s Office signed a ten year, nearly $3 million lease for the space at 577 Central Drive, a building owned by Central Drive Investment Partners LLC, of which DeSteph is the managing director.
City officials intended to use the space to house the voter registrar’s office and told the council that state law requires the central absentee voting precinct be located in that office. But when DeSteph’s connection to the space became public in August, it drew significant backlash.
Critics said the senator’s part ownership of a polling location where thousands of residents would cast ballots if they are unable to vote on Election Day was a clear conflict of interest.
DeSteph told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that a real estate broker negotiated the deal and that it was “all done wide open and transparent.” He also later told The Virginian-Pilot: “Frankly, (being a senator) should have absolutely nothing to do with what I do as a businessman.”
Missy Cotter Smasal, DeSteph’s Democratic opponent in November, told The Virginian-Pilot that his connection was a conflict of interest. “His name’s on the ballot two months from now,” she said. “I’m concerned that it’s part of a pattern of Sen. DeSteph continuing to personally profit off his own voters.”
Aside from the concerns about DeSteph’s conflict of interest, critics also expressed their worries that the building’s location, which is over a mile from the nearest bus stop, would make it difficult for people who use public transportation to reach the voting site.
Andrew Jackson, a city resident who spoke at a public hearing on August 20, aired his concerns about the consequences of the Central Drive location serving as the city’s primary in-person absentee voting site. “I don’t know if this is a form of voter suppression or not, but I’ve got to ask that question,” Jackson said.
Councilwoman Jessica Abbott also raised issues with the relocation of the voter registrar during the August 20 meeting, saying she didn’t think the council had enough information to approve the switch.
These concerns prompted the City Council to defer a decision on the absentee voting site at the August 20 meeting. The council then reconvened on September 3 and voted 11-0 to indefinitely defer moving the in-person absentee voting location to DeSteph’s building.
The voter registrar’s office and central absentee polling location could still move to the DeSteph-owned building in the future, but it wouldn’t happen at least until after this November’s elections, according to the Virginian-Pilot.
Instead, the primary in-person absentee voting location for this year’s elections will remain in Building 14 of the city’s Municipal Center at 2449 Princess Anne Road.
Virginia Beach resident Barbara Messner was pleased by the decision, but still expressed her frustration at the September 3 meeting. “The city never should have even considered moving the central absentee ballot location with only two months prior to the vote,” Messner said.
Absentee voting at Building 14 begins September 20 and the city plans to open additional voting locations as well.