RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Richmond Electoral Board voted unanimously to open two more early voting locations in the city, reversing course after the city attorney said its initial decision was illegal.
The Republican-led board voted 3-0 to have early voting satellite locations at City Hall and Hickory Hill Community Center at an emergency meeting Friday.
The decision comes a little more than a week after the electoral board opted against opening the sites for early voting in the Nov. 7 elections – a move the city attorney’s office said violated state law because only the city council can make decisions on opening the sites.
Moments after Friday’s vote, the board decided against having early voting on Sundays. The 2-1 party-line vote to cut Sunday early voting in the city drew groans from citizens at the meeting and reignited voter accessibility concerns for city leaders.
“Any time you vote on people’s rights, you’re on a slippery slope. And the board chooses to stay on a slippery slope. Just give us voting,” Richmond City Council President Mike Jones told 8News after the meeting. “Council, we appropriated funds. If you need more funds, we can get you more funds because we’ve done it before.”
Richmond Electoral Board Chairwoman Starlet Stevens, one of the two Republicans on the board, said Sunday early voting would place a strain on poll workers, telling reporters that staff would have to work seven days straight to make it work.
“Sunday is not everyone’s Sabbath and so we need to demystify that day. And that’s coming from a Christian pastor,” Jones, who is running for the Virginia House of Delegates in the Nov. 7 elections, told 8News, adding that workers could still have days off and that the city council could set aside more funding if needed.
The board’s initial vote on July 25 sparked backlash from city leaders and advocacy groups, including claims of voter suppression and a threat of a lawsuit, for leaving Richmond’s elections office off West Laburnum Avenue as the only early voting option in the city.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and other Democrats accused Republicans and the GOP-led board of trying to block the other two early voting sites from opening to limit options for voters, particularly Black and brown ones, in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
“While I celebrate their decision to reverse course, I cannot hide the fact that I am disappointed to see them vote to close Sunday early voting locations – a time where many Black and Brown Richmonders cast their ballots,” Stoney said in a statement Friday.
The city’s electoral board has a Republican majority because state law requires two members to be from the same political party as the current governor.
Chairwoman Stevens said the board’s first vote not to open the early voting locations downtown and in South Richmond came down to “budgetary” concerns, not partisan politics or efforts to limit voting options.
“This was not done to suppress any of the voters in the city of Richmond,” she told reporters. “That would be the last thing I would do.”
John N. Ambrose, the electoral board’s vice chair and other Republican, noted after the vote Friday that in 2022 the Democratic-led electoral board voted not to use City Hall as an early voting site for February’s special election and received no criticism from Stoney or others.
“No one challenged that decision at that time. We also closed early voting locations for the two additional elections we’ve had this year,” Ambrose told reporters Friday. “No one pointed out that the law was incorrect.”
Ambrose said the then-Democratic-led electoral board cited “cost-effectiveness,” not a lack of money, for not opening the City Hall satellite voting site. The Richmond GOP issued a statement citing the same point Ambrose raised, calling claims of voter suppression “completely false.”
“It is unfortunate when our elected leaders and candidates make statements that discredit not only the Electoral Board members but also the General Registrar, his staff, and the many others who facilitate our democratic process,” Richmond GOP Chair Kristen Cannon said.
Friday’s re-vote comes ahead of crucial elections this November. All 140 General Assembly seats are up for grabs and, as of now, so is Richmond’s latest push to bring a casino resort to the city’s South Side.
Stevens and Ambrose both said Friday that Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration or any other Republican leader reached out to them about the decision on the early voting sites.
The city’s elections office – located at 2134 West Laburnum Avenue – is tucked close to the Interstate 64 interchange with Interstate 195. Richmond opened the two other sites for recent elections over people’s accessibility concerns with the elections office.
Richmond General Registrar Keith Balmer told 8News after Friday’s meeting that he’s not concerned about the delay the re-vote has caused, saying he believes staff will be prepared and resources will be available for all three locations when early voting kicks off in September.
Early voting in Virginia starts Sept. 22 and runs through Nov. 4.