Relocated Polls, Last Minute Notices. What Happened to Richmond’s Election?

A poll worker stamps a voters ballot before dropping it into a secure box at a ballot drop off location on October 13, 2020. (Photo by Sergio Flores/Getty Images)

By Arianna Coghill, Megan Schiffres

November 26, 2020

The issues in Richmond’s election stretch beyond just the ballots. First, voters had to get to the polling places.

RICHMOND-In our debrief of Richmond’s election, yesterday we looked at the problems with ballots in the city. But the issues stretch beyond that and no, you can’t blame them all on COVID-19. 

Take, for example, the relocation of Richmond Registrar Kirk Showalter’s office. All early voting in the city took place at the registrar’s office, so if you wanted to cast a ballot before November, you had to go there. And yet, just a few days before early voting started on Sept. 18, the registrar’s office was moved. 

Now yes, notice of the office’s move was mailed to Richmond residents. However, those notices weren’t sent until just before the grand opening of the new offices on September 11, Showalter said. 

This gave voters in Richmond only a week to hear about the move and adjust their plans for early-voting, which began on September 18. 

Creating Issues for Some Residents 

Not only did the location of the registrar’s office change, but it was also removed from its central location at City Hall to a space at the very edge of the city limits. Located at 2134 West Laburnum Ave., it is also conveniently closeby some of Richmond’s wealthiest neighborhoods in the West End.

This location is over an hour-long bus ride from Richmond’s public housing projects Creighton Court and Hillside Court. As a result, Richmond residents from some of the lowest-income areas of the city had to spend a minimum of two hours out of their already busy days to vote. This calculation does not include the amount of time a person might wait in line to cast their ballot. . 

Nineteen-year-old Katherine Walker had to pay for a $19 Uber ride just to make it to the polls. As a college student originally from Boston, she doesn’t have a car to take her around the city.  Walker said her first-time voting experience as a good one, but that the transportation barrier was an issue. 

“It definitely wasn’t the most convenient because I had to pay, obviously. And it’s a little tough, because I voted 15 minutes ago and I’m still waiting on my ride,” said Walker. “But, I think it’s worth it because voting is a pretty big deal.” 

According to the registrar’s office, the old location was too small to accommodate voters while maintaining social distancing guidelines from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

“We were posting staff two to a desk as it was. COVID-19 made the situation untenable.  Furthermore, existing space could simply have not accommodated the number needed for a presidential election,” said Showalter. 

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, on the other hand, had cautioned it was a bad idea to move the office at this point. 

“In choosing to host early in-person voting in the middle of a pandemic nearly exclusively at an inaccessible location… I fear you’re risking many residents’ chances to cast a ballot in a safe and timely manner,” Stoney said in a letter to the registrar’s office. 

A Struggle to Get There

In addition to being located at the very edge of the city, the new registrar’s office is also not on the GRTC bus line.

The closest stop, located at the corner of Saunders Ave. and Laburnum Ave., is half a mile from the registrars’ office. 

“It was a mess. I was there the first day of early voting, and I saw a man walk up looking completely exhausted. I guess he had walked from the nearest bus stop and you could tell he just was exhausted. People shouldn’t have to go through that much to vote,” said candidate for city council Allen-Charles Chipman. 

After low-income voters already spent over an hour on the bus and walked half a mile to reach the registrars’ office, they were then confronted with yet another challenge.

Since early voting began in September, the sidewalk and a portion of the road outside the registrar’s office have been blocked due to construction.

This construction is located between the bus stop and the registrar’s office, forcing pedestrians and bus riders to walk on a busy road if they want to cast their vote. 

Even for voters with personal transportation, the construction caused confusion about whether they were in the right place to vote. 

“There was a lot of construction along the drive up to the building, so we were confused if the road was cut off,” said 7th district early-voter Rosie Loughran. “It is so out of the way. That whole location is out of the way anyways, and then there was this construction right in front of it which was pretty inconvenient and confusing.”

A Lack of Accessibility 

According to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) Checklist for Polling Places, once a voter arrives at a polling site, there must be an accessible route from the accessible parking, passenger drop-off sites, sidewalks and walkways, and public transportation stops to get to the entrance of the voting facility. 

Based on this guidance, the construction that blocked the sidewalk outside the registrar’s office constituted a violation of the ADA. 

Though the registrar’s office was difficult to access for pedestrians and public transportation passengers, there was plenty of space for people with access to a car.

“I will say there is plenty of parking. And if all you think about is the type of voter that has a car, then moving to that location from downtown makes a lot of sense,” said city council candidate Tavarris Spinks.

After voters complained of the office’s inaccessibility, the registrar’s office worked with GRTC to establish a shuttle service to the new location. 

However, these shuttles were only accessible at two bus stops located at the corner of 9th St. and Marshall St. or at the corner of Broad St. and N. Robinson St. 

The shuttle service ran from September 23 until the last day of early voting on October 31. Shuttle services to the polls were not provided by the city on Election Day. 

Over a month after early-voting began, on October 24 the city also established two satellite early-voting locations. One of these locations was on the other side of the James River at the Hickory Hill Community Center. The other was located in City Hall, despite the fact that the same space was deemed unsafe by the registrar. 

“The office in City Hall could only handle three voters at a time,” Showalter said. 

Polling Places Moved

In addition to the move of the registrar’s office, five polling places in Richmond were relocated at the last minute. 

The announcement that these polling places, located in the 2nd, 4th, and 7th districts, were moving was mailed out to residents of those areas in September, according to the registrar.

All of the polling places which were moved were located in nursing homes and hospitals.

“The old locations were retirement communities or a hospital,” said Showalter. “These facilities no longer wished to host us due to COVID-19 and the vulnerability of their population.” 

Regardless of whether the decision to move these polling locations was once again due to concerns related to the COVID-19 virus pandemic, Richmond voters had only two months to receive and remember a notification about the change in their polling location.

A History of Suppression

Like the rest of the U.S., voter suppression of minorities, women, and low-income people in Virginia has been enshrined in its legislative and governmental systems since it was established. 

Following the end of slavery in 1870, Virginian legislatures attempted to suppress the rights of low-income men, and by extension African American men who were overwhelmingly economically disenfranchised, by adding a poll tax to the Constitution of Virginia in 1902.

“Authors of the amendment intended to make it too expensive for African Americans. The amendment also disenfranchised men convicted of minor crimes,” said George Mason University African American Studies professor Toni-Michelle Travis. “They didn’t want Blacks to be part of the electoral system and it also kept out poor whites.”

According to Travis, tactics like moving the registrar’s office in Richmond to a more inaccessible area for low-income people are just a new strategy in a centuries-long effort to suppress the minority vote.

“They know where the Black population, certainly the low-income one, is concentrated. So, they make it more costly because you have to get on the public transportation to go farther out. And then as you’re adding, then cross the highway and be endangered that way,” Travis said.

The poll tax remained part of the Constitution of Virginia until 1966. It was repealed a year after the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The Administration’s Response

The office of the mayor declined to comment on any of the instances of voter suppression described in this article. Stoney’s campaign manager Kevin Zeithami did claim Richmond had a record number of voters turnout for the election this year. 

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. 6,692 more people did cast a ballot in the Richmond mayoral race this year compared to the last presidential election in 2016.

However, according to the U.S. Census, the population of Richmond grew by 5,148 residents between 2016 and 2019. Therefore only about 1,544 new voters cast ballots in Richmond this year.

The mayor’s office did not respond to questions about how the city will work in the future to rectify these barriers to voting. They also did not respond to questions related to whether the mayor will support a recount or special election once these barriers are removed.

The office of the Richmond Electoral Board did not respond to requests for an interview.

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