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Virginia Is Foolishly On Course to Hold Municipal Elections In the Middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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by Ben Lambert, Principal Consultant, White Rose Strategies

UPDATE Monday evening:  Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake), Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), and Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) have now put out a press release in support of postponing the May 5 election only one month to June 16 instead of postponing it to November like the governor prefers. This plan is a more medically risky option that serves no purpose other than to stack the odds drastically in the Republicans’ favor.

Following Gov. Northam’s recommendation to postpone the local elections to November would give localities time to address absentee ballot requirements and time to institute a true vote-by-mail system that won’t lead to lawsuits over voter disenfranchisement. Postponing the election just one month to June would not be far off from the peak of the virus in Virginia and would effectively force localities to rely on mail-in voting exclusively with entirely predictable consequences.

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The state of Wisconsin recently gave us a horrifying glimpse into how far some conservatives and their allies will go to suppress citizens’ right to vote. In the middle of a pandemic, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor tried to postpone the date of the election to avoid having large numbers of people congregating at the polls. The Republican-controlled state legislature refused. Republicans had a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court to protect and could not afford to lose their majority. In the chaos that ensued, the number of polling precincts in urban Milwaukee was reduced from 180 to 5, after 7,000 polling workers declined to endanger their health to work. Voters stood in line for hours in the cold to cast a ballot, with whatever protective equipment they could find or improvise.

Sadly, Virginians are on course to undergo the same experience in the 105 localities that are scheduled to hold a municipal election for mayor, city council, town council, town committee, or town recorder on May 5. These 105 Virginia localities represent hundreds of thousands of registered voters, who on May 5th would have to choose between their health and their right to vote.

Disappointingly, some Virginia Senate Democrats seem ready to side with Republicans to hold an election near the peak of the pandemic, regardless of the risk to public health, and even after seeing the chaos and voter disenfranchisement that occurred in Wisconsin’s election on April 7. Sen. Chap Petersen, a Democrat who represents deep-blue Fairfax, stated in a Facebook post on April 8 that he opposes postponing the May local election to November. Sen. Petersen suggested requiring vote-by-mail or limiting the number of voters at a polling place – even though there’s not time to implement a true vote-by-mail system in time for May 5, and even though limiting the number of voters at a precinct would be difficult when the majority of polling places is likely to stay closed due to lack of volunteers, as in Wisconsin. Similarly, a member of the office of Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) told a constituent that he opposes postponing the May 5 election, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID data from Richmond highlights the high stakes of the virus for voters of color. An astonishing 100% of coronavirus deaths so far in Richmond have been African-Americans. “African-American residents make up 62 percent of Richmond’s 162 confirmed COVID-19 cases, despite being only 48 percent of the city population,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “Richmond’s racial disparity in coronavirus cases mirrors one at the state level, and nationwide.”  Trying to hold an election during a pandemic disproportionately infecting African-Americans would only exacerbate the inequality of the impacts of this crisis.

The ACLU is already filing a lawsuit against the state of Virginia for obstacles to mail-in absentee voting during the coronavirus. The ACLU ise calling on Virginia to cancel the witness signature requirement for mail-in absentee ballots during the COVID-19 crisis. Requested mail-in ballots for the May 5 local election currently must be signed by a witness; this presents another barrier to voting safely for those who live alone. Just days away from the April 28 deadline to request a mail-in absentee ballot for the May 5 election, Virginia voters still have to have a witness sign their absentee ballot – despite the ACLU’s lawsuit that this disenfranchises those who live alone during COVID-19. This lawsuit shows how inadvisable it would be to continue with the May local elections.

An important takeaway from Wisconsin’s election is that a last-minute change to vote-by-mail is not feasible. Wisconsin’s absentee ballot program overwhelmed the capacity of a system not set up to handle 1.2 million absentee ballot requests. Thousands of voters who requested absentee ballots never received them, and thousands more received them too late to send the ballot back. Some voters received the ballot and returned it in time only to find that the registrar did not receive it by the April 7 deadline. Eight lawsuits have been filed so far over failures in Wisconsin’s absentee ballot system. It is worth noting that Virginia is far less prepared than Wisconsin to switch to an all-mail-in election. Wisconsin’s voter registrars had experienced processing 250,000 absentee ballots the cycle before. Virginia’s registrars processed exactly 9,041 absentee ballot requests in the May 2018 elections. To attempt to change completely to a vote-by-mail election on such short notice, which Wisconsin did not do, invites far more disastrous consequences. Similarly, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in Ohio for voter disenfranchisement after the state made plans for a mail-in-voting-by-request-only election during the coronavirus pandemic

In 1924, a desperate Al Capone attempted to keep the Republican mayor of Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, in power. On Election Day, his armed men rode the streets, attacked voters, raided polling places, and shot police to successfully re-elect the mayor. To suggest that it would disenfranchise voters to move the May municipal elections to November is to suggest that the presence of more police officers at Cicero polling stations in 1924 would have given Democrats an unfair advantage. It is technically a change in election procedure, but it corrects for the much larger problem that an election cannot be fair if the voters are in fear of their lives.

Governor Northam’s suggested schedule of elections is not a partisan one. Before he made this request, Republicans complained that Virginia’s stay-at-home order was set to end the day after the June 9 Congressional primaries, a PRIMARILY/EXCLUSIVELY Republican event. They asked Governor Northam to ensure that their voters could exercise their democratic voting rights and to recognize that keeping the original schedule would effectively suppress the vote. In Governor Northam’s April 8 press conference, he agreed and moved the primaries back to June 23, while requesting that Republicans and Democrats abide by the same standard for local elections. By and large, Republicans have made it clear that they will not.

Unfortunately, some Republicans have seen an even better opportunity to make the local elections even more unfair by trying to hold them in the middle of a public health crisis.

Like the change in the Congressional primaries, the November municipal election would be a one-time measure. There is nothing whatsoever in the governor’s budget amendment that allows any localities to move their elections to November permanently. The question of when local elections can be held to produce the most representative, effective government is one for another time. At this time, however, it is impossible to have a legitimate election when it must be conducted under fear of death.

Anyone, Republican or Democrat, who suggests that this election should not be held in November is saying that it is reasonable to ask voters to risk their lives.

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Please contact your state senator and ask them to support Gov. Northam’s recommendation to move the May 5 election to November due to the coronavirus crisis: https://whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov/

If you are a constituent of these Democratic Senators who plan to join with Republicans to hold an election near the peak of Virginia’s COVID-19 pandemic, please ask them to reconsider for the safety of Virginia voters. Postponing the election to November would allow time for Virginia to implement a true vote-by-mail system that will not lead to lawsuits over voter disenfranchisement.

Sen. Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax) – district34@senate.virginia.gov, 703-349-3361

Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) – district05@senate.virginia.gov, 757-424-2178