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Debate over Elections and Virginia Begins to Reopen: Political Analysis for Friday, May 22, 2020

A cartoon image of Craig Carper and Jeff Schapiro with a microphone between them.

Jeff Schapiro from the Richmond Times-Dispatch joins VPM News Director Craig Carper for this week’s political analysis via Zoom. Topics include measures to allow Virginians to vote safely, and details about the steps Virginia is taking to reopen.

Craig Carper:  From VPM news in Richmond, I'm Craig Carper.  Joining me now is Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist and VPM’s political analyst, Jeff Schapiro.  Jeff, good morning.

Jeff Schapiro:  Good to see you again, Craig.

Carper:  With Virginia beginning to emerge from lockdown, local elections delayed two weeks by COVID-19 appeared to go off without a hitch, but there are fights underway, both legal and partisan, to prevent Virginia from making it easier and safer to vote during this health emergency.

Schapiro:  We had these local elections across Virginia on Tuesday.  They'd been rescheduled on an order by the governor, Ralph Northam, from the 5th of May.  The governor, of course, had hoped that these elections would be held concurrent with the presidential election in November.  The legislature didn't go along with that.  In and around Central and Eastern Virginia, if you will, VPM-land, these local elections included Louisa, Ashland, and Williamsburg.  Now the election officials around the state say that these elections were well attended.  Now what that means is that these usually low turnout affairs, 18 to 20% turnouts, were actually slightly higher.  The records that were set, and there were records that were set, were in the absentee voting.  In Bristol, for example, out in southwest Virginia, two-thirds of the votes, and this a 16% turnout for city council, were cast absentee.  In Fairfax, three-quarters of all ballots were cast absentee, and there of course was drive-thru voting.  Perhaps you've seen some of the television footage, you know, voters in masks and gloves pulling up their cars, greeted by poll workers in masks and gloves.  Ballots are completed; hand sanitizer is dispensed; voters drive off having done their bit for representative democracy.  Northam has been pushing this absentee voting by mail since the outbreak erupted in Virginia in March.  Republicans and some conservative groups are pushing back to block absentee voting by mail in the rescheduled congressional and senatorial primaries in June.  They were reset by Northam from the 9th of June to the 23rd.  Now the attorney general, Mark Herring, got a deal in federal court under which an element of absentee voting, that a witness be present when a mail ballot is opened, completed, and then sealed and returned.  Republicans wanted that preserved.  And then there's this group out of Texas, called True The Vote.  New York Times says it’s as close to high, to the supposed national high command of the conservative movement.  They've turned to a federal judge up in Northern Virginia.  They want to restrict voters from casting absentee ballots by citing the fear of the coronavirus.  As the governor has suggested, under the law, if you're voting absentee for health reasons, you're supposed to have an illness or some disability.  This is a big Republican talking point.  Remember, voting by mail, as far as the Republicans are concerned is an invitation to fraud.  There's really no actual evidence of this.  More than 20 states, Republican and Democratic states, allow some form of mail voting.  The Republican worry is that making it easier to vote will mean more people will vote, and that many of those people will be Democrats.  Don't forget, Republicans have spent years erecting obstacles to voting.  That was certainly the case in Virginia.  That New Democratic majority in the General Assembly, got rid of many of those restrictions this year.

Carper:  And Jeff, Richmond and Northern Virginia remain shut down this week.  Both got two-week extensions from Governor Northam.  But Virginia Beach got the green light to reopen the oceanfront, and for that resort city, this is a big deal coming just ahead of the Memorial Day launch of the summer travel season.

Schapiro:  Now of course in Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney asked for and received that extension at the last minute.  This irritated a lot of business owners in the city.  They were anticipating an initial easing of the restrictions last week.  Stoney is not saying whether he'll allow the city to fully reopen when this two-week extension lapses next Friday.  With significant percentages of illness and death hitting minorities, the mayor makes no secret of his concerns over a continuing lack of testing, even as testing ramps up.  And the Richmond area has some of the highest infection rates.  We're seeing the suburban counties, Henrico and Chesterfield among them, beginning to ease up.  Now Northern Virginia, also an early hotspot, was all in on this extension.  But we're beginning to hear rumblings from Republicans up in Northern Virginia, that local government should start dialing back a bit on these restrictions.  As for Virginia Beach, its mayor joined Northam this week for a press briefing in which the city laid out its plans to enforce social distancing.  It's put together something called this ambassadors system, volunteers who will remind people to wear masks in public, avoid groups of ten, and you know, stay at least six feet from others.  Now Northam, remember, used to live in Virginia Beach, and he toughened these restrictions back in March, in part because of what he considered dangerous, if not reckless behavior.  In Virginia Beach, on the oceanfront over the Easter holiday, there were these raves that we're drawing hundreds of young people.  I think it's important to note as well, Virginia Beach is heading into a somber time.  In just over a week it will observe the first anniversary of the mass slaying at City Hall, in which a city employee shot dead twelve people and injured four others.  Voter revulsion over that episode helped along the Democratic take-back of the legislature last year and adoption of restrictions on firearms that Republicans had thwarted for years.

Carper:  Thanks to Jeff Schapiro, political columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  Jeff, we will catch up again next week.

Schapiro:  Roger that.