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Protests Enter New Stage With Voter Registration Drives

Jovanni Armstead (right) and other volunteers registering voters.
Jovanni Armstead (right) and other volunteers trying to register voters. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM News)

All last week, Jovanni Armstead joined Richmond’s protests. She was mad about police violence and gentrification in her neighborhood.

“And people are asking, ‘What next?’” Armstead said. “And I said, ‘What next -- we have to make sure people are registered to vote.’”

So she and a few friends took an online class and set up a table facing a statue of Robert E. Lee on Friday.

Armstead says voting sends a message to the politicians: “You’re either going to do the job we hired you to do, or we’re going to boot you out.”

Armstead has her work cut out for her. New voter registrations in Virginia sunk to around 8,000 in May -- less than a third of what they were in February, before the virus forced people home.

She registered five voters in her first half an hour last Friday. Then, a white man who said he lives nearby came by to talk about the protests. He wouldn’t give his name; he said he owned a business in town and was worried about being branded a racist.

“I don’t know why the police aren’t here arresting people,” the man said, eyeing a group of protestors, worshipers, and snack tents assembled beneath the monument.

“So none of this is important?” Armstead shot back. “So we should go back to the way we were -- everybody be quiet.”

“There’s been a tremendous amount of progress made in the last 50 years,” the man said.

Armstead later said she almost swallowed her tongue.

“Oh man,” she told the man. “For you!”

The man asked Armstead to justify the protests -- their noise, their goals, their tactics. He was tired of the noise and wanted to know why businesses had been looted.

Have you ever had a soda bottle, and they shake that thing, and shake that thing, and after a while you try to take that top off and it explodes?” Armstead asked him. “That’s the looting. That’s the protestors. That’s where we are right now.”

Organizers across the country are attempting to channel that energy into registering the young, diverse protestors. Pew estimates that roughly one in ten eligible voters in this year’s election was born after 1996. The electorate is also more diverse than ever before.

“These voters represent a tsunami of voters that are coming of age,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino.

Her group registered more than 40,000 people the first week in June -- double its goal for the entire month. They’ve done it using online ads, including ones that use imagery and language from the protests. Voto Latino’s new goal is to register 700,000 people by election day.

“Because we’re literally talking about 15 million unregistered Latinos,” Kumar said. “And of those 15 million unregistered, 10 million of them are in our wheelhouse, are young people. And they’re online, and we know where to find them.”

Still, most voter registrations happen at government offices, like the DMV. With those buildings closed, some states have actually seen a decline in the number of people on their voter rolls. 

Myrna Perez, director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights and Elections Program, said the pandemic represents a steep hurdle for organizers.

She said without the pandemic, there would have been plans for “enterprising young people in brightly colored t-shirts to be going to festivals, and knocking on doors.”

With that off the table for now, Perez said groups should consider old-school techniques like mailers and phone trees. 

“We do not want our democracy to be a closed loop,” Perez said. “We do not want the only people participating to be those that have already been participating.”

That means registering people like Richmond protestor Shay Martin. Martin said she regularly signs petitions but couldn’t remember the last time she voted.

I tried voting for third parties for a few years, and then I realized the two major parties are just too dominant,” Martin said.

Martin says she became disenchanted with presidential politics.

“But I’m trying to revitalize my desire to vote locally and see if that’s something that will help,” Martin said.

There are early signs that politicians are listening. Mayor Levar Stoney and City Council now unanimously support removing four Confederate monuments in the city, a move that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago. 

Their re-election this November may hinge on what they do next.