By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The Chesapeake City Council voted on August 15 to designate four public libraries as early voting centers for the upcoming November 7 General Election.
But none of them are located in the majority African-American sections of Virginia’s second-largest city, including the Cuffee and Camelot Community Centers.
Starting October 23 to November 4, residents of Chesapeake can vote early at the Major Hilliard, Russell Memorial, Central and Indian River library branches.
Residents also can vote by mail or at the General Registrar’s Office 45 days prior to the General Election on November 7.
Black civic and political leaders are concerned that the city did not include the Cuffee Community Center or the Camelot Community Center to vote early.
The Cuffee Center Precinct serves a community that is 54 percent African-American in South Norfolk, according to Chesapeake Councilwoman Dr. Ella Ward, the lone vote against the move.
She said that many elderly African-Americans and those without reliable transportation would be deterred from using the early voting option.
Ward and representatives of the Chesapeake NAACP voiced their opposition to the council’s decision on the night of the vote.
The Chesapeake Electoral Board approved the changes at the behest of the city’s General Registrar Mary Lynn Pinkerman.
The board swapped the Camelot Community Center for Major Hillard Library, which has been the location for the Deep Creek area in years past, with only about a mile difference. They eliminated both the Greenbriar Library and the Cuffee Community Center.
That leaves only four locations instead of the six they had last year.
On the night of the council vote took a vote, Pinkerman said that turnout at the Cuffee site was only at 1 percent during the 2022 pre-general election early voting cycle.
The Registrar said the cost of operating six sites was a factor in the Electoral Board’s decision, too.
“I was upset,” Dr. Ward said. “There was no time for public comment for or against the item. They have reduced the number of early voting sites and Sunday voting for the same reasons.”
So far as the low voter turn in 2022, Ward said having a small turnout is not a good enough reason to get rid of that location.
“Because 1 percent turned out,” she asked. “Well, that’s better than zero percent and that 1% percent may not turn out when it’s time to vote and they do matter.”
That’s something Chesapeake resident David Washington, a member of the NAACP, agreed on when he said, “That 1 percent, if they don’t get an opportunity to vote early, they may not vote at all. So, you just denied a percentage of your taxpayers the opportunity to go vote because you’re worried about a percentage.”
Before the council’s vote, the state Democratic party sought to persuade Chesapeake officials to vote against the changes.
In a statement a day after the vote, the State Democratic party, spokesperson said in a statement, “The Va. GOP leadership in Chesapeake is pursuing a course of action that will make it more difficult for Virginians to vote. The locations that the Republicans seek to eliminate are in the heart of the Black community of Chesapeake. This action will unambiguously make it harder for Black Virginians to cast their ballot and is unmistakably voter suppression.”
Dr. Ward was not the only African-American city leader who was upset about the change.
“We will not stand by (as the city closes) different localities that will hinder others from being able to exercise their right to vote,” said Chesapeake NAACP Interim President Dr. Shirley Auguste.
Dr. Auguste said that she is concerned about the changes for two reasons.
“It is not rational or logical” she said. “Voters should have all access to the ballot including early voting. They should have access to voting precincts within walking distance like Camelot and Cuffee Centers. Now they have to go all the way to Hilliard.”
She also said the action shows a lack of transparency.
Dr. Auguste said that the city failed to alert the community as required by state law. She said the Registrar claimed she placed the changes in a notice in the weekly publication “The Clipper.”
“But I looked for it and did not see it,” she told the GUIDE. “Also, many members of the council said they were not aware of the issue being placed on their agenda until they saw it the night of the vote
Dr. Ward noted that Chesapeake is the most Republican leaning city in Hampton Roads.
There are no Democrats on the school board and no Black or Democratic constitutional officers in the state’s second-largest city.
At one time state and national Republicans detested early voting, which was a tool Democrats used to compete in elections. Republican states and locales have been passing laws around the nation to lower Black voter participation, thus Democratic party turnout.
But this year Conservative Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in his vow to recapture the State Senate and maintain control of the State House of Delegates has urged Republican voters to use early voting heavily.
If Republicans manage to secure both Houses of the General Assembly, Democrats fear a reversal of legislative progress in civil rights, voting rights, and women’s reproductive rights.
Dr. Ward is the lone Democrat on the 9-member Chesapeake City Council.
The city is 29 Percent African-American.
State Senator Louise Lucas will face Republican Tony Goodwin in the 18th Senate District general election set for Nov. 7.
More than 60 percent of the 18th Senate District is in Chesapeake and the rest in Portsmouth. Democrats expect a heavy GOP turnout in Chesapeake come election day with the intent to defeat Lucas.
“This is a very crucial election. I think this is an example of an effort to suppress the Black vote,” said Ward. “But we have got to work hard to assure this does not work against us.”