Capital News Service

Legal state marijuana sales could overtake illegal trade by year four

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia’s commercial marijuana market could yield between $30 million to $60 million in tax revenue in the first year, according to a new report by the state’s legislative watchdog agency.

The Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission released a report this month that explores how the commonwealth could legalize marijuana. The agency, however, did not give its take on legalization. Shortly after the report was released Gov. Ralph Northam announced that “it’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia.”

The state’s tax revenue could grow to between $150 million to more than $300 million by the fifth year of sales, according to JLARC. The revenue depends on the tax and demand of marijuana products. 

 Most states with commercial marijuana markets tax the product between 20%-30% percent of the retail sales value, JLARC said. Colorado, one of the most mature and successful U.S. marijuana markets, currently has a tax rate close to 30%, showing that while the tax may be high, the market could still be successful, said Justin Brown, senior associate director at JLARC. 

“But in reality, there's no magic rate that you have to use, and I think that's one thing that the other states' experience shows,” Brown said. 

Virginia decriminalized marijuana possession earlier this year. The substance is still not legal, but possessing up to an ounce results in a $25 civil penalty and no jail time. In the past, possessing up to half an ounce could lead to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. 

If the Old Dominion makes marijuana legal, it will follow in the footsteps of 15 states.

The legal marijuana market should overtake the illegal market in marijuana sales by the fourth year of legalization, JLARC said. The legal market could likely have two-thirds of sales by the fifth year of legalization. JLARC looked at the reported use rates compared to the use rates of other states to determine this figure, Brown said. 

“In the first year the minority of sales will be through the legal commercial market,” Brown said. “But then over time, particularly if supply and demand works out, you'll capture at least the majority of the full market through the legal market.”

JLARC said that if the General Assembly legalizes marijuana, the total sales tax would come out to around 25%-30%. This figure also came from the analysis of other states and how they taxed marijuana. 

The industry also could create over several years between 11,000 to more than 18,000 jobs, JLARC said. Most positions would pay below Virginia’s median wage. 

The revenue would cover the cost of establishing a market by year three, according to JLARC.

Northam said in a press release last week that his administration is working with lawmakers to finalize related legislation in preparation for the upcoming Virginia General Assembly session, which starts Jan. 13. 

Racial equity obstacles in Virginia’s push to legalizing marijuana

By Brandon Shillingford, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Could legalizing marijuana in Virginia help address social disparities and inequities? That’s one of the topics the state’s legislative watchdog agency explores in a new report examining how the commonwealth could legalize marijuana. 

The Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission report was published shortly before Gov. Ralph Northam announced he will support legislation to legalize marijuana in the Old Dominion.

Virginia decriminalized marijuana possession earlier this year and reduced possession penalties to a $25 civil penalty and no jail time for amounts up to an ounce. In the past, possessing up to half an ounce could lead to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. 

Northam said legislation should address five principles including public health and social, racial and economic equity.

The report addresses the establishment of a commercial marijuana industry that protects minors, prosecutes illegal sellers and maintains the state’s medical marijuana program. JLARC director Hal Greer said the study also examines ways legalization could benefit individuals and communities disproportionately impacted by past enforcement of marijuana laws. 

“As a first step in that effort, we analyzed data on marijuana arrests across the state in the last decade,” Greer said. “The data revealed a deeply troubling finding that Black individuals are being arrested for marijuana offenses at a much higher rate than others.”

The commission found that from 2010 to 2019 the average arrest rate of Black Virginians for marijuana possession was more than three times higher than that of white residents for the same crime—6.3 per 1,000 Black individuals and 1.8 per white people. This is despite the fact that Black Virginians use marijuana at similar rates as white residents. The conviction rate was also higher for Black individuals with marijuana possession charges. 

Over the last decade, Virginia has made about 20,000 to 30,000 arrests each year for marijuana-related offenses. Legalization and decriminalization would reduce marijuana related arrests by 84%, according to JLARC. Civil possession offenses would no longer occur if marijuana was legalized. Arrests would only take place if large amounts were illegally distributed, said Justin Brown, senior associate director at JLARC.

Legalization would eliminate some marijuana laws and create new ones, which would decrease some aspects of police work and increase others, the report said. 

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, a nonprofit pushing for the legalization of marijuana in Virginia, wants laws to allow the expungement of marijuana convictions.

 “Our platform is really to be a line of defense between Black communities as we legalize marijuana,” Higgs Wise said. 

Higgs Wise said Marijuana Justice seeks to repeal prohibition of marijuana, repair or expunge criminal records of Black Virginians who have been arrested for possession and begin the process of paying reparations to Black communities. 

Higgs Wise said she grew up watching family members such as her father suffer the consequences of unjust drug laws. Higgs Wise’s father was in and out of prison for non-violent drug offenses, she said. 

“I’ve been a child watching my family just having to struggle with housing, employment,” Higgs Wise said. “My siblings and I are first-generation college students trying to do better for our own legacy and family legacy.” 

Proponents of social equity argue that communities most affected by marijuana law enforcement should benefit from the commercial market if it were legalized, the JLARC report said. These communities would likely be composed of mostly Black Virginians since they have been arrested and convicted at the highest rates for marijuana related offenses, according to Greer. 

Social equity initiatives could include community reinvestment programs, providing business assistance programs to individuals in these communities, and promoting entrepreneurship and employment in the industry. 

“It looks like legalization is more on the minds of people but I will tell you that folks are looking at marijuana legalization as a way to fill gaps within our budget rather than really working to divert the revenue of cannabis that will be coming back into the communities that truly deserve it,” Higgs Wise said.

Virginia could not legally set aside business licenses for minorities, according to the report. 

“The main challenge for preference programs is ensuring that preferences flow to the intended parties,” said Mark Gribbin, JLARC chief legislative analyst. “Race cannot legally be used as a criterion.”

Individuals with a marijuana criminal record could be given preference for business loans, discounts or other assistance, but that may include unintended beneficiaries such as wealthy college students arrested for marijuana possession, the report said. Business assistance programs also can target individuals based on residence, but that includes new residents that have moved to a gentrified area. 

Another option is to provide business assistance and support based on an individual’s residence and marijuana criminal record. However, that method excludes people indirectly affected by marijuana law enforcement, such as an “eviction because of marijuana-related conviction of an immediate family member.” 

Brown said that some of the ideas in the report such as promoting entrepreneurship among the Black community were based on programs that have been implemented in other states. 

“I think what we've seen from other states is, you probably need to do more than that so we had some assistance programs that could be paired with that,” Brown said. 

Mentorships programs could partner startups with larger businesses so they can share administrative services and work space. 

“The idea is to set up some more experienced business owners so they could mentor less experienced business owners and try to help them compete in the marketplace,” Brown said. “We had to have options related to the licensing component as well as the assistance component for those people who get licenses.”

A 2019 report from the Portland City Auditor revealed that nearly 80% of recreational marijuana tax revenue went to public safety, which included money for police and transportation programs. The auditor concluded that the city needed to improve the transparency of tax allocation decisions and results. 

“I’m not confident that the General Assembly is truly thinking about a racial equity model, rather than just a way to bring in more revenue and that's something the people are going to have to bring forward,” Higgs Wise said. 

Northam said that in addition to undoing harm caused by racial discrimination, upcoming legislation should also include substance abuse prevention efforts in schools and communities. The governor said that any legislation must include protections for Virginia’s youth, including age limits and mandatory ID checks. Northam also said that legislation should ensure the state collects appropriate and ongoing information on safety, health and equity.

Once the General Assembly begins in January, there may be another formal presentation to legislators who may draft legislation related to legalization. 

“Our goal was to basically give them a menu of things they could do, and they could do all of these things or they could do some of them or they could do none of them,” Brown said. “Hopefully we gave them enough information to at least help them understand the various trade offs there across all those options.”

CNS reporter Ada Romano contributed to this story. 

Traditional Thanksgiving off the table for many

By India Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Many Americans are grappling with ways to make one of the nation's most celebrated holidays safe amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Richmond resident Caroline Kaschak will feast at home to protect at-risk elders in her family. 

“It is just going to be my husband and I,” Kaschak said. “We are going to order in fancy takeout instead.”

Colleges like Virginia Commonwealth University are offering COVID-19 exit testing to students before they return home for the holidays. Some Americans still have scheduled traditional Thanksgiving gatherings with their families. 

“I plan on going to my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving,” said VCU student Rickaya Sykes. “They live in the same town as me, and we are very close. If I am not at home, I am at their house spending time with them.”

The Centers for Disease Control recently issued guidance for gatherings over the Thanksgiving holiday. The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is at home with people who live in the same household, the CDC said. Gatherings with family and friends who live outside of the home can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu. 

The agency recommends that hosts limit the number of guests, disinfect surfaces and keep windows open to decrease coronavirus risk. For attendees, guidance includes bringing and eating food from home with their own utensils and staying out of the kitchen. 

COVID-19 cases and deaths have sharply risen in the past two weeks across the nation and in Virginia, according to the New York Times. Over the past week, there has been an average of 2,262 new cases per day in Virginia, an increase of 62% from the average two weeks earlier, according to the Times.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced a coronavirus mandate in Virginia to limit private gatherings and some public events to 25 people. The restrictions took effect Nov. 15, less than two weeks before the Thanksgiving holiday. 

The CDC urged Americans to consider alternative Thanksgiving Day activities such as virtual celebrations, eating meals outdoors, post-holiday shopping online and using curbside pickup. 

Virginia State Parks is encouraging families to gather at its 39 parks— which have remained open during the pandemic—over the Thanksgiving holiday. The “Opt Outside” promotion will be celebrated throughout the holiday weekend from Nov. 26 to Nov. 29. Visitors have a chance to win a $500 Virginia State Parks gift certificate if they submit up to five photos of their trip and enter it into the annual photo contest. The Virginia State Parks promotion started 10 years ago as “Green Friday'' to motivate families to visit the park instead of post-Thanksgiving shopping on “Black Friday.”

“Since the promotion started, we have seen more people visiting parks over the holidays,” said Tim Shrader, the eastern region field operations manager for Virginia State Parks. “You have all this family coming in, you probably need to get outside and enjoy each other’s company outside for physical and mental health.”

AAA released its annual Thanksgiving travel forecast, which anticipated at least a 10% drop in travel. The agency said that is the largest one-year decrease since the Great Recession in 2008. In mid-October, AAA expected up to 50 million Americans to travel for the holiday. Now they say it could be lower given the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and health notices.

The nation’s airports saw an uptick in travelers over the weekend, despite the CDC advisory to avoid traveling. The Transportation Security Administration reported almost 4 million travelers from Nov. 19 to Nov. 22, but the rate of travelers was still much lower than at the same time last year.

Virginia leaders seek input on Lee statue replacement in U.S. Capitol

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- State leaders are seeking public input on what individual should replace a statue of former Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee located in the U.S. Capitol. 

A commission appointed by the state legislature will hold a virtual public hearing Tuesday to help determine a replacement. The Lee statue is one of two that represent Virginia in the Capitol. The other is a statue of the nation’s first president and also a Virginian, George Washington. 

The Lee statue is one out of 13 in a section of the Capitol known as the Crypt. Each of the original 13 colonies is represented by a statue. Legislators passed a bill in the spring allowing a committee to determine if the statue should be removed and recommend a replacement. The commission decided in the summer to remove the statue and will recommend a replacement in December or when the commission concludes its work. A date has not been set to remove the statue, said Randy Jones, public information officer for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. 

The statue must honor an individual that is dead and is a notable historical figure or known for civic or military service, according to VDH. The person must be a U.S. citizen but exceptions will be made for Indigenous people who lived in the nation before it was formed. 

For years there has been an increasing call to remove Confederate statues, which accelerated amid demonstrations after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Floyd died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for almost 8 minutes, while Taylor died after police opened fire while serving a warrant. A legal battle is pending over the removal of the Lee statue in Richmond. It is one of the last memorials in Richmond honoring Confederate leaders after protesters knocked some down, and others were removed by the city. 

Virginia’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have called for the removal of the Lee statue in the Capitol. 

“The Lee statue in the Capitol should be replaced,” Kaine said in a statement. “There are many compelling candidates for a replacement statue and [I] have full confidence the commission will pick someone representative of our history.”

 Citizens have already suggested possible replacements for the Lee statue in the Capitol that can be viewed on the DHR website. Suggested substitutions include former Virginians, such as:

  • James Armistead Lafayette, a former slave from Virginia that later became a spy for the Continental Army in the American Revolution. 

  • Dr. Robert Russa Moton, second president of Tuskegee University following the death of Booker T. Washington. The Moton Museum, a National Historical Landmark in Farmville, is named after him.

  •  Maggie L. Walker, a former educator and businesswoman who advocated against racism and sexism. She was the first African American woman to create a bank. 

  • Roger Arliner Young, the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in zoology. 

  • Pocahontas, An Indigenous Virginian and daughter of Chief Powhatan.

A number of people have nominated former Secretary of Defense and Gen. George C. Marshall. Marshall was not born in Virginia but graduated from the Virginia Military Institute. 

 Jennifer Oh, a Virginia resident who leads Capitol tours said in a letter that she opposes a statue honoring Marshall. She said the understanding behind the removal of the Lee statue is to have a “Virginia representative that symbolizes a life of inclusion.” Oh wrote that Marshall’s career does not reflect inclusion or support of minorities. 

The commission will also appoint a sculptor to create the statue with preference given to a Virginia-based sculptor. Eight members serve on the commission: Edward Ayers, a professor at the University of Richmond; Colita Fairfax, a professor at Norfolk State University, Sen. Louise Lucas D-Portsmouth; Fred Motley, a storyteller and performer; Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock Tribe; Margaret Vanderhye, a former delegate who previously led the Virginia Commission for the Arts; and Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton. Julia Langan, DHR director, will serve as a non-voting member. 

The public hearing will take place from 9 a.m. to noon. Participants can register to attend or speak at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources website. People can also email suggestions to USCapitolCommission@DHR.virginia.gov until Nov. 27.

Candidates and groups drop over $12 million on Facebook ad spending

 

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- In an election forecasted to have record voter turnout, political campaigns have deployed a multiplatform media blitz. 

Facebook is for more than likes these days, with the platform getting its share of Virginia political and issue spending to the tune of over $12.7 million in a recent three-month period, according to the social media platform. 

Tobe Berkovitz, an advertising professor at Boston University who has worked as a political media consultant on election campaigns, said campaigns advertise on social media for the same reasons that consumer advertising is used. 

“It’s where a lot of either voters or consumers are getting their information,” Berkovitz said. “You can specifically develop messages for individuals and smaller groups and you can very tightly target who it is that you want to reach.”

Democratic groups or candidates dominated the top 10 when ranking the largest political Facebook ad spending in Virginia. Those organizations spent a combined amount over $2.4 million. That’s excluding the money Facebook and Instagram have put into political advertising.

Facebook tracks advertising spending on issues, elections and politics in its Ad Library. The data show that over a recent 90-day period, about 2,700 groups or candidates, including Facebook and Instagram, spent over $12.7 million on Facebook ads in Virginia. During a comparable period before the election last year, Facebook ad spending totaled $5.5 million, according to a previous Capital News Service report. 

The most spending from Aug. 2 to Oct. 30 went toward candidates at the top of the ballot. Over $2.2 million was spent by the two fundraising committees associated with President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Biden’s campaign fundraising arm The Biden Victory Fund invested more than Trump’s fundraising committee. The Biden Victory Fund spent more than $1.1 million between the pages of Biden, Kamala Harris and the Democratic Party. Over $1 million was spent on candidate Biden. 

Trump’s fundraising committee The Trump Make America Great Again Committee closely trailed the Biden camp. Trump’s campaign spent just shy of $1.1 million over eight Facebook pages, including the pages of Black Voices for Trump, Mike Pence and Women for Trump. Over $750,000 of that total went to Trump’s re-election campaign. 

Berkovitz said social media advertising is becoming more popular because of the analytics that are available to the campaigns.

“It provides a lot of information about the people you’re trying to reach, the people you do reach, how your message is working, what types of messages do work for them and you just have a lot more data to go on,” Berkovitz said. “We’re in a world where everything is data driven now.”

Over $1.2 million was spent on contested Virginia Congressional races and a South Carolina Senate race. Democratic incumbent in the 2nd District U.S. House race, Elaine Luria’s campaign spent more than $207,000. That lands her in the No. 4 spot. Her opponent Scott Taylor’s fundraising committee spent just shy of $62,000. Taylor previously held the seat and the election is a rematch between the two candidates. 

The 7th District U.S. House race accounts for more than $15.5 million spent on all media advertising during the election season, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic incumbent, spent almost $193,000 on Facebook advertising in the last 90 days. Nick Freitas, Spanberger’s Republican opponent, spent just shy of $24,000 in the same time span. Most of the money for this closely watched race has been spent on broadcast and cable TV advertising. 

Democratic Sen. Mark Warner’s fundraising committee spent over $186,000 in the effort to keep his 1st District U.S. Senate seat. Daniel Gade, his Republican challenger, spent significantly less through his campaign arm, investing just under $42,000. 

A South Carolina Senate race between Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and his Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison landed in the No. 8 and No. 9 slots, spending a combined amount of over $310,000. Jaime Harrison for U.S. Senate spent over $156,000. Team Graham Inc. spent just shy of $154,000. 

Advocacy groups turn to the platform for the same reason as politicians. Stop Republicans, a self-described accountability campaign of the Progressive Turnout Project, made the No. 3 spot with just under $230,000 spent targeting Virginians through Facebook. The Progressive Turnout Project ranks No. 7 with $164,000 spent during the last 90 days.

The Service Employees International Union Committee on Political Education rounded out the top 10, spending just over $151,000. SEIU is a labor union representing workers in the healthcare industry, public sector and property services. The organization spent millions nationwide this election cycle to get out the vote, target infrequent voters and promote progressive candidates. 

The political advertising total in Virginia is lower compared to Florida, where almost $85 million was spent in the same 90-day period. In swing state Pennsylvania just over $57 million was spent. Over $45.2 million was spent in targeted Facebook advertising in neighboring North Carolina. 

Facebook isn’t oblivious to the influence its platform has. The company recently imposed a ban on new political ads from being placed leading up to Election Day. 

Judi Crenshaw, who teaches public relations at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Facebook’s ban was “an effort to put the brakes on this influence and this disinformation leading up to the election.”

“I don’t know what else to call it except for an attempt,” Crenshaw said. “It’s a last minute attempt and it certainly is a very limited attempt when ads that were placed before this period of time are still allowed to run.”

What will we know and when will we know it on Tuesday? (Or later?)

By KAANITA IYER, Capital News Service

With record voter turnout, including a high volume of mail-in ballots, and mail delays expected, it is unclear whether we will know who the next president is on election night, experts say.

“I’ve been expecting the unexpected,” said Michael Hanmer, research director at the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, a nonpartisan research center at the University of Maryland, College Park. “I think that’s the best way to work through this because there’s so many different possibilities.”

However, Hanmer told Capital News Service it’s “pretty safe to say” that Democratic nominee Joe Biden is headed for a significant popular vote margin over President Donald Trump. But, similar to 2016, determining the next occupant of the Oval Office is going to come down to the Electoral College - and it's possible this year that may not be settled until some days after Tuesday.

As of Friday morning, nearly 83.5 million early votes were already cast, of which nearly 54 million, or 64.6%, were mailed, according to the University of Florida’s United States Elections Project.

But in many states, including four of eight battleground states — Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — ballots are not allowed to be counted until Election Day.

Twenty-one states, plus the District of Columbia, accept ballots up to 17 days after Election Day. Of these, two are battleground states: Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

New York and Alaska, which accept mail-in ballots 7 and 10 days after Election Day, respectively, have said that they will not report “any mail votes on election night,” according to the New York Times.

In the battleground state of Michigan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has estimated her count may be completed by Nov. 6, three days after Election Day. Pennsylvania, another battleground, may get the bulk of its votes tallied within a couple of days, according to Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar.

But the nation might not have to wait too long because “we’ll have a lot of information about a couple of really key states (on election night),” particularly Florida and Arizona, where mail-in ballots must be received by Election Day, Hanmer said.

“That might allow us to project forward what’s going to happen in a definitive way,” he said.

“I think really the only state that (Hilary) Clinton won (in 2016) that (Donald) Trump has a shot at is Nevada and it’s a relatively small number of electoral votes, so I don’t think Trump can win without Florida,” Hanmer he said.

While a Biden win in Florida would suggest that he’s going to win in both popular and electoral votes, turning Arizona blue would not make results as clear, according to Hanmer. If Biden gets Arizona, it can foreshadow a national victory by a huge margin or a close race determined by few electoral votes for either candidate, he said.

However, FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast predicts that if Biden wins Florida or Arizona, he has a 99% and 98% chance, respectively, for an Electoral College win.

Hanmer, who also is a government and politics professor at Maryland and an expert for MIT’s Election Data & Science Lab, expects that “we should know a good bit” about Georgia, which has an Election Day deadline for mail-in ballots, and North Carolina, as well.

While North Carolina accepts ballots after Election Day, the state has seen a high volume of early voting. FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver reported that “it’s expected that as much as 80% of the vote there can be announced shortly after polls close.”

If those go to Biden, Hanmer predicts that the country won’t “have to worry as much about what the count is going to be in some of the states that are processing late because I think that will largely solidify things in terms of us having a clear winner."

If Biden wins Georgia, his chances for an electoral win is 99%, while grabbing North Carolina, pushes the probability over 99%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast.

In the case that Georgia and North Carolina do not go to Biden, Hanmer said “we might just have to wait until all the counting is done." Then the results can “really hinge” on Pennsylvania, where “we’re just not going to have solid information on what the result is...for a while because they can’t count or process their ballots until very late," he said.

Trump has repeatedly called for final results to be called on election night, in part due to his distrust in mail-in voting - even though he did it himself this year.

“Big problems and discrepancies with Mail In Ballots all over the USA. Must have final total on November 3rd,” he tweeted Monday night.

That kind of rhetoric is inappropriate, warned the National Council on Election Integrity, a bipartisan group of former elected officials.

“Our Constitution and our state election laws require us to count every vote, including legally cast absentee votes,” the council said in a statement Wednesday. “Because of an unprecedented number of absentee ballots this year, counting every vote is not likely to be concluded on election night. In some states, thorough vote counting can last weeks, even in the best of times.”

Almost half of returned mail ballots in 19 states that report party registration data, including Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, were from registered Democrats, according to the Elections Project. On the other hand, 60% of Trump supporters told the Pew Research Center in late summer that they would rather vote in person on Election Day.

On election night, this could mean that in states that report mail-in ballots first, initial results may favor Biden. In places that report in-person, day-of votes first, such as most parts of Virginia, Trump may seem to have the lead.

While this pattern in which ballots received post-election favor Democrats is well-established, Walter Shapiro, in an analysis for the Brennan Center for Justice, warns that the pandemic may disrupt this trend “since different demographic groups may be voting by mail.”

In key states, the Republican Party wants to prevent this “blue shift” while Democrats are relying on it. However, research reported by MIT News shows that historically, even “some of the biggest post-Election Day shifts” — the largest being 6.9% in 1968 towards George Wallace in Georgia — have not tipped the outcome of the election.

Yet both parties have fought over mail-in ballot deadlines in the Supreme Court, and such legal back-and-forth, which may continue after Election Day, could further delay results in critical states.

Last week, the Supreme Court denied the Pennsylvania Republican Party’s request to reject ballots if received after Election Day. In a 4-4 decision, the court ruled that the battleground state can accept ballots if received within three days after Election Day. After the party asked the court to reconsider the decision, the justices let their earlier ruling stand.

Also on Wednesday, the Supreme Court backed a lower-court ruling and similarly allowed North Carolina to accept mail-in ballots up to nine days after Election Day, extending the deadline to Nov. 12.

However, an attempt by Wisconsin Democrats to also extend the mail-in ballot deadline by three days to Nov. 6 was first accepted by a federal district court, but then blocked by an appeals court. The Supreme Court voted 5 to 3 on Monday to uphold the appeals court.

Another blow to Democrats came on Thursday when a federal appeals court struck down Minnesota’s plan to accept mail-in ballots up to seven days after election. The key state will now only be able to accept ballots received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

While states can continue contesting mail-in ballot deadlines and bring them to the Supreme Court — which Hanmer told CNS wouldn’t be surprising — “the court sent a pretty strong signal that changing things now, given how deep we are into the process, is unlikely,” he said.

He predicts that legal challenges after the election are “more likely,” and so are anger, disbelief and protests from supporters on both sides.

“It seems very odd to say that about a presidential election in the United States, but there’s a lot of signals that suggests that large portions are not going to accept well the outcome either way,” Hanmer said.

“What people do about that, I think, is a big unknown,” he said. “But it’s something we have to prepare for.”

The National Council on Election Integrity counseled patience and trust: “Every ballot cast in accordance with applicable laws must be counted — that’s the American way. All Americans, including the presidential candidates themselves, have a patriotic duty to be patient as election officials count the votes. Both candidates have a responsibility to remind the country that November 3 is the last day for votes to be cast — not the last day for votes to be counted.”

Halloween’s blue moon is rare and perfect for the moment

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- This year has brought a pandemic, major election and now a rare, blue moon on Halloween.

A blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month and appears every 2.5 years, according to NASA. A full moon occurs on Halloween every 19 years. A Halloween full moon hasn’t appeared in all time zones since 1944, states the Farmer’s Almanac. 

The blue moon isn’t blue; the term refers to the moon’s timing, not color, NASA said. The blue moon is also known as the hunter’s moon because it provided enough light for hunters to gather food. 

Kali Fillhart, a tarot reader and astrologist, said in a Facebook message that the astrology of 2020 is more “wonky” than just a blue moon on Halloween. There is also a Mercury retrograde that ends on Election Day and a Mars retrograde that ends on Nov. 13. A retrograde describes how a planet can sometimes appear to be traveling backward through the sky, states the Farmer’s Almanac. A Mercury retrograde has a common cultural association with anxiety around miscommunication and blunders. 

“All that to say, astrologers have been talking about the astrology of 2020 for years,” Fillhart said. “We knew it was going to be intense.”

She also said this full blue moon could bring “unwanted reactions” for people, especially since Halloween is a time when “spiritual veils fall.” 

Halloween traces back to the Celtric tradition of Samhain, a festival to celebrate harvest and usher in the coming darker months. The Celts believed the “veil” between the living and the dead was at its thinnest around this time, and they celebrated their deceased ancestors, a tradition also seen in Dia de los Muertos.

Adding to the alignment of a blue moon, Halloween and astrological events, will be Daylight Saving Time on Sunday, when many Americans set their clocks back an hour and it’s darker out earlier. 

While October may have started and ended with a bright, full moon, many Americans have anxiety around the upcoming election and facing winter in a pandemic. The share of voters who expect it will be difficult to vote has more than tripled since 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. Eighty-three percent of voters said this election matters. Fifty percent of voters shared that sentiment in 2000. One in three Americans reported psychological distress during extended periods of social distancing, Pew reported in May. 

Kashaf Ali, a marketing communications and analytics major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said in an email that Halloween won’t be any different for her this year, but she acknowledged that the blue moon feels ominous.

“I’ve been social distancing since March and I doubt it’ll be any different this weekend for me,”Ali said. “It’s definitely something to think about how everything’s happening so close together.”

Deneen Tyler, a spiritual wellness practitioner in Richmond, said that the people will be dealing with the energy the blue moon brings this Halloween.

“Full moons are a time of completion,” Tyler said. “It’s a time of releasing, letting go, making peace, honoring what we’ve been through, and saying goodbye in order to close that chapter and let in something new.”

Tyler said that this full blue moon will be in the astrological sign of Taurus on Halloween, and that many people might be wrestling with saying goodbye to different habits and routines, and that could apply to Election Day.

“We’re all collectively dealing with the change, hence the election, the change in the authority of our society,” Tyler said. “We’re resisting change and these alignments are really showing us where we need to release the resistance.”

Fillhart also believes that this Halloween is a time of change and personal reflection.

What does our dark side look like?” she said. “Halloween is all about confronting monsters. What monsters are we constantly fighting everyday?”

While the moon will be in Taurus on Halloween, it will be in Gemini on the night of the election, opening up new possibilities. Tyler said that, depending on the choices individuals make in dealing with the outcome of the election, people could feel “very confused” or “very inspired.” Ultimately she said people will have to choose how to direct that emotion.

“It is our choice which way we fuel,” Tyler said. “You can fuel the confusion and create more of it, or you can fuel the inspiration.”

The last blue moon on Halloween in all time zones ushered in the victory of a blue candidate. Incumbent Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Republican Thomas E. Dewey, going on to win a historic fourth term in the 1944 election.

Tyler said that unlike astronomy that people can witness, astrology occurs within. Different factors pertaining to celestial bodies can influence people in different ways, but individuals have to choose how they react and “the seeds they plant” on their own.

“This moon this weekend and all of these high energy, highly spiritual days, all they’re doing is opening the road for us to make a choice of which way to go,” she said. “It doesn’t dictate to us what will happen; it doesn’t dictate to us what we need to do.”

Virginia localities take precautions to protect voters, workers

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia localities are taking a number of precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at polling places even though masks will not be required. 

Saturday marked the last day to cast early, in-person ballots before Election Day, but voters can still cast in-person ballots on Nov. 3. They also can mail or return absentee ballots by that day. Election officials have been working to keep voters and workers safe during an election that has yielded a record number of early votes.

More than 5.9 million Virginians were registered to vote as of Oct. 1, with the cut off date in late October. Early voting commenced 45 days before Election Day, due to a new law. Legislators also recently changed laws to allow no-excuse absentee voting and made Election Day a state holiday. More than 2.7 million Virginians had voted as of Nov. 1, with around 1.8 million individuals voting or casting an absentee ballot in-person, according to the Virginia Department of Elections website. More than 886,000 voters have cast absentee ballots by mail and nearly 1.1 million mail-in ballots have been requested. 

Voters are encouraged to wear a mask, and will be offered one, Andrea Gaines, director of community relations at the Virginia Department of Elections, said in an email. They will also be offered the opportunity to vote without leaving their vehicles.

“Ultimately, a voter will not be turned away if they are not wearing a mask but the Department strongly encourages them to do so to keep themselves and others around them safe,” Gaines said. 

Even though there is a state mandate requiring individuals to wear masks when in close proximity with others, it’s against state law to “to hinder or delay a qualified voter in entering or leaving a polling place,” regardless of whether they have on a mask, Gaines said.

Poll workers and voters will be buffered with a number of measures. Such precautions include enforcing social distancing as well as placing plexiglass between voters and poll workers, according to Gary Scott, general registrar and director of the Fairfax County Office of Elections. Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed, according to Gov. Ralph Northam’s office.

Fairfax County workers will also have shields, gloves and masks, which will be replaced throughout the day, Scott said. To avoid the chance of voters sharing pens, Fairfax County will provide voters with “I voted” pens that they can use to fill out their ballots and keep instead of offering stickers.

The Virginia Department of Elections distributed $9 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding that could be used to help secure personal protective equipment needed by local election offices, Gaines said.

In Charlottesville, poll workers will have sanitizing wipes and ponchos to help provide an extra layer of protection, said Taylor Yowell, the city's deputy general registrar.

“We have plenty of sanitizing wipes and the sterilizing spray and paper towels in order to wipe down each polling booth after every voter throughout the day,” Yowell said. 

Danville poll workers checking identification will be buffered by the use of a shower curtain placed on PVC pipe, said David Torborg, a chief poll worker at one of the city’s 16 precincts. 

Torborg, who has been an election worker for about 20 years, decided to serve as an election worker again this year because he believes the precautions in place are good and will be enough to protect workers and voters from the coronavirus.

“I’m aware of COVID, I’m cautious as I can be,” Torborg said. “I’m not freaking out over it.”

Others, like former Danville poll worker JoAnn Howard, have decided against working at the polls this election to mitigate the chance of contracting the coronavirus.

“I was given the option and I did feel guilty because I’ve been working the polls for 10 years, and I really enjoy it,” Howard said. “Something could go wrong, I just didn’t want to take a risk.”

Election workers in Fairfax County are trained every three years or when laws impacting election workers or voters change, Scott said. The county has been training election workers since July on how to follow and implement social distancing measures. In Charlottesville, training sessions for new election officers were kept small to stay within Centers for Disease Control guidelines. 

“All election officers do get trained on protection and making sure they’re wiping down, sanitizing,” Yowell said. “Our chiefs get trained more thoroughly with helping with de-escalation and sanitizing throughout the day.”

Virginia Department of Elections also provides training along with each locality’s specific training, Gaines said over email.

Around half of registered voters had voted in Fairfax and Charlottesville, according to Scott and Yowell. 

Around 9,000 people have voted in Charlottesville as of Oct. 28. Around 5,000 to 6,000 mail-in ballots were sent out, Yowell said. The number of in-person and absentee requests accounts for nearly half of the city’s 33,000 active registered voters.

“We've already gone over 50% of our anticipated turnout in five days of in-person voting,” Scott said. “We anticipate close to 60% of our voters will have voted prior to elections.”

Voters worry about voter suppression despite recent legislative changes

By Brandon Shillingford, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Despite the commonwealth recently passing a number of laws to make it easier to vote, some Virginians are concerned over voter suppression.

Michael Fauntroy, an associate professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, said political campaigns have a long history of trying to suppress Black voters.

“I think it happens in every election,” Fauntroy said. “The extent to how sophisticated an operation it is will depend on the sophistication of the campaign and the resources they have to go out and identify voters and try to discourage them from voting.” 

Carlette Bailey, a Richmond resident, said she fears ballots will be lost, stolen, or disappear before they have a chance to be counted.

“My main concern is the mail-in votes and making sure they're there on time,” Bailey said. “The votes have to come from our mailbox and be where they have to be on Election Day so they can be counted.”

The Democratic Party of Virginia recently sued the Richmond General Registrar, J. Kirk Showalter, over an effort to get a list of names whose absentee ballots  were rejected because of ballot errors. The organization said they wanted to inform voters of the ballot errors and that other localities had provided similar lists.

Tony Whitehead, another Richmond resident, said he is concerned about the possibility of ballots being stolen from mailboxes by groups who want the opposing party to win.

In early October six outdoor mailboxes were broken into in Henrico and Chesterfield counties and Richmond. The United States Postal Service and Virginia Department of Elections are currently investigating the incident, but it is unknown if the mailboxes contained ballots. 

“You can’t really point the finger as to who's doing it, but if my ballots are stolen, that's voter suppression right there,” Whitehead said. “That one vote that’s been suppressed could be the difference between who you want in office and who I want in office, and that's just not right.”

Bailey and Whitehead are not alone. A number of Americans are concerned about their votes being accurately counted this election. Democrats are more concerned than Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center. Forty-six percent of Democrats believe the election will be conducted fairly and accurately, while 75% of Republicans share the same sentiment. 

Fauntroy said Black voters in Virginia will be subjected to less suppression than Black voters in states such as Georgia and Florida with majority Republican leadership.

“The Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, and other leadership in Virginia have been drawing enough attention to this that voters will know what's at stake,” Fauntroy said.

The Virginia General Assembly has recently taken steps to make it easier to vote, including laws that allow no-excuse absentee voting, early voting that starts 45 days prior to an election and making Election Day a state holiday. 

Legislators also passed a bill that repeals a 2013 Republican-backed law requiring a photo ID to vote. The new law also makes additional forms of identification acceptable, such as a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, or other government document that shows the name and address of the voter. 

Fauntroy said that photo ID bills are an example of Black voter suppression.

Fauntroy said voter suppression has occurred more frequently since the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County V. Holder, which found part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. The decision struck down a formula that required certain states which had discriminatory laws, such as requiring tests to vote, to obtain federal approval before changing voting laws. 

Fauntroy said that almost immediately after the ruling North Carolina moved forward with voter ID laws that would not have passed if the preclearance provisions had remained. 

“In the 2014 elections, we saw a number of Republicans winning seats because of redrawn districts and voter ID laws that they would not have won,” he said.

Fauntroy said national voter suppression in this election will be a multifaceted effort coming from different levels. This could include litigation, reducing the amount of early voting locations, and moving or eliminating polling locations that could make it harder for people of color to vote. 

With no formula dictating which states obtain federal review, communities or individuals who feel they are being targeted by discriminatory voting laws must file lawsuits themselves or rely on ones filed by outside advocates or the Justice Department, according to an opinion piece in The Atlantic. This happens often after laws have been passed.

Federal legislators have introduced bills to establish new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain federal approval before changing voting laws, but the measures haven’t advanced. 

Local Majority, a progressive political action committee, said common voter suppression strategies include restricting absentee voting, reducing the number of polling places in a jurisdiction and disenfranchising citizens with past criminal records.

A joint resolution introduced in the 2019 General Assembly session that would allow felons to vote was continued until the 2021 session.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, noted that the challenges the country faces aren’t new. The fate of the country is on the line and with that, Black voters and voices matter now more than ever, McClellan said.

“When we have gained social, political, and economic power, there has always been a swift and violent backlash, but we cannot and have not been deterred,” McClellan said. “We owe it to our ancestors, our children, and their children, to vote and help shape the future of our country because democracy and our very existence are on the ballot.”

The issues guiding first-time Gen Z presidential voters

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As Election Day draws near, people are on the edge of their seats, especially those voting in the presidential election for the first time. 

Generation Z makes up 10% of eligible voters in the 2020 election, according to the Pew Research Center. This percentage is expected to continue to rise at the same rate as more Gen Zers become eligible to vote. Some of the oldest members of this generation became eligible to vote in the 2016 election. Anyone born between 1997 and 2012 is considered a member of Gen Z, according to Pew

In addition to COVID-19, there are many issues motivating young voters to the polls. Gen Z voters say they’re concerned with police violence, prison reform, mental health issues, immigration and reproductive rights. 

Millennials and members of Gen Z tend to be more liberal, even those who identify as or lean Republican, according to a 2018 Pew survey. This survey also says that 43% of Gen Z Republicans are “more likely than older generations of Republicans to say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the U.S. today.”

“Gen Zers are progressive and pro-government, most see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing, and they’re less likely than older generations to see the United States as superior to other nations,” the survey found. 

Below are key concerns for Gen Z voters. 

THE ISSUES

Kendal Ferguson, a 20-year-old student studying criminology, law and society at George Mason University in Fairfax, cares about prison reform and combating police brutality. She wants all prisons to be government funded and said “private prisons are morally wrong” because they profit off people who break laws. 

“As for police brutality, there definitely needs to be more training for officers,” Ferguson said.

Selena Johnson, a 20-year-old student studying computer science at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is concerned with police violence, reproductive rights and climate change.

“I want to see some sort of regulation on the big companies that are contributing to like 70% of the world’s pollution,” she said. She believes that these companies should be “in the front of our minds” when combating climate change.

The recent confirmation of Amy Coney Barret as a Supreme Court justice has drawn concern from pro-choice advocates due to her past comments on abortion. Johnson said that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned and police officers “need to face consequences for their actions.”

Jessica Callahan, a 21-year-old Republican voter from Dinwiddie, said that Barrett is a “great fit” for her position on the Supreme Court due to her educational background at Notre Dame Law School. She also believes that more racial tension will inevitably come out of this election.

“It’s going to be a bunch of name-calling and finger pointing until some sort of civil unrest occurs,” Callahan said. 

Callahan is also worried about the future of healthcare in the U.S. if Democrats win the election, as well as Second Amendment rights. She thinks health care would “go down considerably” and that “they would push even harder for restrictions” on firearms. 

Ada Ezeaputa, a 20-year-old student majoring in business at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, is passionate about ensuring abortion access and ending police brutality.

“I don’t think the police need to be abolished, but I do think the whole system needs to be reformed,” she says. “When you look at countries like the U.K., their police officers don’t even carry weapons, so that already decreases the amount of incidents that happen all over the world.”

In addition to police reform, she is pro-choice and believes that women should have full autonomy over their bodies.

Alyssa Tyson, a 20-year-old recent graduate of Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, wants to protect personal freedoms and mental health care.

“Mental health care is something that doesn’t get addressed a lot,” she said. “I think a lot of the problems we’re trying to address as a nation start with dealing with mental health issues and providing affordable or even free mental health care to people who need it.” 

Tyson also said she is passionate about social justice issues, and that the government should not regulate reproductive rights or make laws that hinder LGBTQ rights.

Emily Wrenn, a 20-year-old student majoring in psychology at Sweet Briar College in Amherst County, considers her political views to be liberal. Wrenn describes herself as pro-choice, and said the main issues she cares about are women’s rights and dismantling racism.

“One of the biggest reasons why I am swaying more to the Democratic side is that I am very much in favor of women’s rights,” she said. “We need to make sure we are on the right track in seeing that women and men receive equal pay.”

Wrenn also said that this is “the most debate on the quality of our president that I’ve ever seen,” and that “this is one of the most significant elections we’ve had in a long time.”

THE IMPACT

Despite the encouragement to vote, first-time, Gen Z voters are divided on whether they can sway the election.

Johnson said she knows many people her age will vote third party or not at all because they are disinterested in either major presidential candidate, but she thinks the youngest generation of voters has a lot of power in this election.

“I believe that we have the most diverse population of eligible voters in America’s history,” she said. “I’m voting for who I view as ‘the lesser of two evils,’ but many people my age don’t want to vote at all because the lesser of two evils is still an evil.”

In 2016, young voters ages 18 to 29 were the only age group to report increased turnout compared to 2012, with a reported turnout increase of 1.1%, according to the U.S. Census. 

Ferguson, however, doesn’t believe that Gen Z has the power to sway this election.

“Our generation is still very apathetic about voting despite how vocal we are on social media and through other means,” Ferguson said. “I honestly think not a lot of people our age will bother to vote.”

Wrenn, however, believes that Gen Z could help secure a Democratic win.

“I think because we are so seemingly liberal that that will make a huge difference,” Wrenn said.

How Biden and Trump plan to face the COVID-19 pandemic

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va.-- Both major presidential candidates hope to convince voters they have plans in place to protect the health of Americans and the economy as COVID-19 cases rise nationally. 

As of Oct. 28, there have been almost 8.8 million total coronavirus cases in the United States and 176,754 in Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the past week, the country has reached a record high level of daily new cases, according to The New York Times.

Candidates addressed their plans to address the COVID-19 crisis during the final presidential debate held earlier this month. President Donald Trump criticized former Vice President Joe Biden for wanting to “shut down the country” and said that a vaccine will come soon. 

“I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country,” Biden responded, adding that there need to be “standards,” or response protocols, in place for when rates increase in a community. 

Below are more details on Trump and Biden’s plans for handling the pandemic. 

Trump’s Plan

Samantha Zager, Trump’s deputy national press secretary, said that the president’s administration will continue to respond to the virus as they have been.

“When reelected, the President will continue his work on developing a vaccine to achieve his vision of a return to normal life and a roaring, post-COVID economy where all Virginians can achieve their version of the American Dream,” Zager wrote in an email. 

Zager also criticized Biden’s proposed response to the virus.

“Joe Biden has actively demeaned a coronavirus vaccine for political purposes, and he would surrender to the virus, hurting Virginia’s small businesses and families with another draconian shutdown of our economy,” Zager said. 

Under Trump, Congress passed an over $2 trillion dollar coronavirus stimulus package—the CARES Act—that gave money to every eligible adult in the country, as well as small businesses and healthcare facilities. Legislators recently failed to advance another stimulus package. 

Trump has stated that the U.S. is the world leader in testing, having performed 100 million COVID-19 tests. The U.S. however, does not have the highest number of tests per capita, which some health experts say is a more useful metric, according to PolitiFact, a fact checking project run by the nonprofit Poynter Institute.

 Trump said the U.S. has led the “largest mobilization since World War II” to combat the coronavirus and that no American who needed a ventilator has gone without one. Additionally, his administration has launched “Operation Warp Speed” to fast-track vaccine production. In July, Trump hoped to have 300 million doses of vaccines available by early 2021. The administration announced agreements just weeks before the election with CVS and Walgreens to provide COVID-19 vaccines to residents of long-term care facilities with no out-of-pocket costs.

Trump has also stated that the U.S. will withdraw from the World Health Organization to hold the organization “accountable for mismanagement of the coronavirus.” 

Biden’s Plan

Biden's campaign did not answer direct questions but referred to the candidate’s website which outlines ways that Biden plans to fight the virus. If elected, his administration would “spend whatever it takes, without delay, to meet public health needs and deal with the mounting economic consequences.”

He has accused Trump of having “no comprehensive plan” to curtail the pandemic that has killed over 225,000 Americans. Biden also said he backs the accelerated development of a vaccine, something that has also been a priority for Trump’s administration. 

Biden promotes swift and aggressive action from the federal government to protect families, small businesses, first responders and caregivers. Biden said helping individuals and small businesses is essential. Corporations shouldn’t be bailed out. 

Biden states that if elected he will make COVID-19 tests “widely available and free” by establishing at least 10 mobile testing sites per state and expanding programs which offer tests to people who may not know how to ask for a test, such as nursing home residents. He also plans to amend the Public Health Service Act and the Social Security Act to make sure individuals aren’t charged for COVID-19 tests, treatment or vaccines. 

Biden has also called on every state governor, as well as local authorities like mayors, to pass a mask mandate.

The Biden administration plans to provide up to 12 weeks of paid sick leave for U.S. workers. Biden promotes the passage of an emergency paid leave program that would require 14 days of paid leave for individuals who get sick from the virus or have to quarantine. 

Biden’s plan also includes helping “vulnerable nations” treat coronavirus outbreaks. 

What should the next president do?

Dr. Bill Petri, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville, said that the next president needs to focus on finding a vaccine for the disease and producing those vaccines within the U.S.

“First, the federal government needs to support fundamental research on immunization and vaccines,” Petri said. “We should be leading the world in providing COVID-19 vaccines, we don’t want China or Russia doing that.”

Petri also said that the federal government should be more involved in coordinating the COVID-19 responses of individual states, which have differed depending on individual governors. 

“What one state does affects us all,” Petri said. 

Many Democratic state governors have criticized the federal government for providing a slow-paced COVID-19 response. Some state governors have coordinated their COVID-19 responses with other states. The governors of Virginia and Maryland, as well as the mayor of Washington D.C, have attempted regional cooperation in battling the pandemic. 

Petri said that the next president should continue to support the CDC as well as individual state departments of health, including the Virginia Department of Health. 

In a recent Pew Research poll, 57% of registered voters surveyed said they are “very or somewhat” confident in Biden’s ability to handle the impact of the coronavirus, while 40 percent say they are “very or somewhat” confident in Trump’s ability to do so.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Students Say Protests Motivating Them to the Polls

 

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Voters are more divided now than they were in the 2016 election, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. Many young Virginians believe the passion could translate to the polls on Election Day.

Rickia Sykes, a senior at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, said that her political views have grown stronger since protests erupted globally in late May. The death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis Police Department officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly 8 minutes, inspired months of protests.

Sykes said that her political views line up with her faith. She considers herself pro-life, believes in advocating for the working class, and supports law-enforcement.

“The protests have shown me we need to keep God first, but it has also shown me that good cops are important to help keep law and order,” Sykes said in a text message. “I do realize that there are bad cops, but in order to make a change, I believe we need to work together with the good cops.”

Sykes said that now she researches politicians more thoroughly before deciding which candidate gets her vote. She looks at voting records to see if they vote in a way that “will help us middle and lower-class families.”

Erik Haugen, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond who considers himself a Libertarian, said his political views haven’t changed much since the protests started.

“I just see the stronger push for equality, and I think it’s a good step in our nation so long as it proceeds peacefully,” Haugen said.

Equality is at the center of issues that student voters are concerned about this election. From racial injustice to prison reform to healthcare concerns, many students say they want to enact positive change.

Students have varying opinions on whether or not the importance of voting has become more significant in recent years. Sykes said that she has always found voting significant, but she believes the importance of it has grown for others. Haugen said that while his political views haven’t changed, he believes voting has become more important in general and especially for the younger generations as tension in the U.S. grows and protests become more prominent.

Sarah Dowless, a junior at William & Mary in Williamsburg, said that voting has always been important, but the protests have made voting more prominent, “like people encouraging folks to vote and making information about voting accessible, especially among young people." Dowless said the recent protests have reinforced her progressive beliefs. 

“If anything, the protests have only amplified my concern for racial injustice in America and my concern about police brutality,” she said. “It’s a fundamental issue about freedom and it calls into question the very principles on which this country was founded and continues to claim.”

The protests also influenced a host of legislation in the recent special legislative session of the General Assembly that ended last week. Virginia legislators passed numerous bills focused on police and criminal justice reform.

According to the United States Census Bureau, voter turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds jumped 15.7% between 2014 and 2018. This was the largest percentage point increase for any age group. Turnout is expected to be high this year as well, but there are no final numbers for age groups. Voter registration in Virginia set a record this year with almost 5.9 million voters  registering. During the last presidential election a little more than 5.5 million people registered to vote.

Sykes is also concerned about the economy and health care.  She wants a political leader who will increase the odds that people have a stable source of income to afford medical treatment. 

“As a graduating senior, I want and need a good paying/stable job for when I graduate,” she said. “I need someone who will make sure we have a strong and reliable economy.”

Dowless wants U.S. prisons, which she describes as currently being “more punitive than rehabilitative,” to undergo major reform. Haugen would like police academy programs to be longer and implement de-escalation training. 

“I first and foremost care about the safety of the American people,” Haugen said. 

Early voting and no-excuse absentee voting are currently underway throughout the state. The deadline to request to vote absentee by mail is Oct. 23. Early voting ends the Saturday before Election Day, or Oct. 31.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia lawmakers pass legislation to make Juneteenth a state holiday

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Juneteenth has officially become a state holiday after lawmakers unanimously approved legislation during the Virginia General Assembly special session. 

Juneteenth marks the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, which was the last state to abolish slavery. The companion bills were introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the legislation on Oct. 13.

“Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States,” Northam said during a press conference held that day. “It’s time we elevate this, not just a celebration by and for some Virginia, but one acknowledged and celebrated by all of us.”

Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, introduced a bill in the legislative session earlier this year to recognize Juneteenth, but the proposal didn’t advance. 

Northam proposed making Juneteenth a state holiday in June during a press conference that included musician and Virginia-native Pharrell Williams. Northam signed an executive order that gave executive branch employees and state colleges the day off. Some Virginia localities, such as Richmond and several places in Hampton Roads, also observed the holiday this year.

“I think it is overdue that the Commonwealth formally honor and celebrate the emancipation and end of slavery,” Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, a co-patron of the bill, said in an email. “It was a step towards fulfilling the promise of equality contained in our founding documents.” 

The Elegba Folklore Society, a Richmond-based organization focused on promoting African culture, history and arts, is one of the groups that has been celebrating the holiday for decades. The celebration usually is a three-day weekend event that looks at the history of Juneteenth. A torch-lit walk down the Trail of Enslaved Africans in Richmond is also held, said Janine Bell, the society’s president and artistic director. 

“We take time to just say thank you to our ancestors, their contributions, their forfeitures, their trials and tribulations,” Bell said. “We invite people to Richmond’s African burial ground so that we can go there and pay homage from a perspective of African spirituality.”

Juneteenth should not be used as another holiday to look for bargains in stores, Bell said. It should be a time for reflection about liberty, as well as for celebration and family strengthening.

“It’s a time for optimism and joy,” Bell said. 

The Elegba Folklore Society broadcasted its Juneteenth event online this year due to the coronavirus. Although there were still around 7,000 views, Bell said that it is usually much larger and has international influence. 

Cries for police reform and social justice continue to increase, Bell said. More attention is being drawn to the racial disparities across America. With this, people have been changing their priorities concerning issues such as discrimination.

“This was a step towards equity,” Bell said about the bill. “A symbolic step, but a step nonetheless.”

State workers will be off during Juneteenth. If the job requires individuals to come in to work, then they will be compensated with overtime or extra pay, said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a patron for the bill. 

The General Assembly wrapped up the agenda last week for the special session that began Aug. 18. Northam called the session to update the state budget and to address criminal and social justice reform and issues related to COVID-19.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia legislators advance police and criminal justice reform measures

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly wrapped up the agenda this month for the special session that began Aug. 18. Legislators introduced over 50 police and criminal justice reform bills during the session. 

Gov. Ralph Northam called the session to update the state budget and to address criminal and social justice and issues related to COVID-19. The governor still has to approve the budget and make amendments or veto bills. 

Among the police and criminal justice reform measures were proposals that would change policing methods, impose new disciplinary actions for law enforcement and reduce penalties of certain crimes. Both parties introduced legislation that seemed to be inspired by months of protests across Virginia.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the organization supports several criminal justice reform bills except the legislature’s approval of bills that make certain traffic violations secondary offences and the ban on no-knock search warrants.

“The way it was [the no-knock search warrant bill] delays the issuance of a search warrant that could lead to deaths, injuries and destruction of evidence,” Schrad wrote in an email. “We plan to seek [the] governor’s amendments to make final corrections to the bill to ensure the safety of officers and potential victims.”

Some Republican-backed bills aimed to increase penalties for certain crimes, including pointing a laser at a law-enforcement officer and for an assault on an officer, and to criminalize the act of cursing at an officer while on duty.

Below is a sample of the police and criminal justice related legislation that were approved by both chambers.

PASSED LEGISLATION

Mental health response. House Bill 5043, introduced by Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond, and Senate Bill 5038, introduced by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Dale City, establishes an alert system when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Marijuana charge prepay. SB 5013, introduced by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, gives people charged with marijuana possession the option to prepay a fee.

Crisis intervention. SB 5014, introduced by Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, requires the Department of Criminal Justice Services to establish standards and update policies for law enforcement concerning sensitivity and awareness of racism.

Civilian oversight. SB 5035, introduced by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Midlothian, allows localities to establish a civilian oversight body for their police department. The civilian oversight body can investigate incidents involving law enforcement as well as complaints from citizens, and make binding disciplinary decisions, including termination, in the event that an officer breaches departmental and professional standards. 

Sentencing reform. Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, called his bill SB 5007 “the most transformative criminal justice reform legislation” to pass in two decades. The measure allows for defendants to be tried by a jury but sentenced by a judge.

“It has long been the practice in Virginia to be sentenced by a jury after selecting a jury trial, which has led to excessive sentences far beyond what sentencing guidelines state,” Morrissey posted online.

Conditional release. SB 5034, introduced by Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko, D-Fairfax, grants consideration for conditional release for certain qualifying terminally ill prisoners. 

Marijuana and certain traffic offenses. HB 5058, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, prohibits an officer from stopping a motor vehicle for operating without a license plate, with defective equipment such as a brake light, window tinting materials, a loud exhaust system or hanging objects inside the vehicle. It also prohibits officers from searching a vehicle solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana.

Earned sentence credits. HB 5148, introduced by Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, establishes a four-level classification system for earned sentence credits. The system allows a range of 3.5 days to 15 days to be deducted from an inmate’s sentence for every 30 days served, with exceptions based on severity of crime. The bill directs the Department of Corrections to convene a work group by next July to study the impact of the sentence credit amendments and report its findings to the General Assembly by Dec. 1, 2022. Parts of the bill have a delayed effective date of Jan. 1, 2022.

Criminal justice board. HB 5108, introduced by Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Prince William, makes changes to the Criminal Justice Services Board and its Committee on Training. The board, currently made up exclusively of members with backgrounds in law enforcement and private security, will be required to add representatives from civil rights groups, mental health service providers and groups that advocate for the interests of minority communities. Guzmán said she got the idea for this bill while she was visiting the Criminal Justice Services Board with fellow legislators.

“We only have law enforcement voices at the table,” Guzmán said. “So, how can you learn about what is going on in the community if you don’t have their voice at the table?”

Guzmán said the bill will improve crisis intervention training and help police officers who may experience traumatic events while on the job. 

Misconduct and termination. HB 5051, introduced by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, requires a police department authority figure to notify the Criminal Justice Services Board if an officer is terminated for serious misconduct, as defined by the board, within 48 hours of the department becoming aware of it.

Disclosure of information. HB 5104, introduced by Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, requires sheriff, police chief or police department directors to disclose to a potential law enforcement or jail employer information regarding the arrest, prosecution or civil suit filed against their former officers seeking employment. The applicant would have to sign a waiver to allow that information to be disclosed. The bill also may require an officer to undergo a psychological evaluation before taking a job in a jail or police department. 

Ban no-knock warrants. HB 5099, introduced by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, bans law enforcement officers from executing a search warrant without giving notice of their identity or purpose before entering a residence.

“The use of no-knock search warrants have long been a controversial practice, since the beginning of their use during the Nixon administration in the 70’s,” Aird said in an email. “The tragic loss of Breonna Taylor renewed the concern regarding the use of this search warrant, the risk to residents and officers and their disproportionate application in minority communities.” 

Unlawful use of excessive force. HB 5029, introduced by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, requires that a law enforcement officer intervene when witnessing another officer using excessive force while on duty. 

Carnal knowledge of detainees. HB 5045, introduced by Del. Karrie K. Delaney, D-Centreville, closes a loophole within the state law and makes it a Class 6 felony for a law enforcement officer to have sexual relations with a detainee, pre-arrest.

Prohibition of the use of neck restraints. HB 5069, introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, prohibits a law enforcement officer to use a neck restraint or chokehold while on the job. New York has had a ban on chokeholds since 1993, but the effectiveness of the law was called into question in 2014 when Eric Garner died after an apparent chokehold was used during his arrest by a New York City Police officer. The officer involved was not indicted, but was later fired.

Guzmán said that even though some of these bills may not be perfect, it’s better to improve civil rights in Virginia one piece of legislation at a time rather than to be dismissive of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I would say that inaction is enabling, and if we don’t act, in a way we are saying we are OK with what is going on in today’s society,” Guzmán said. “We recognize the struggles, we recognize that there are problems, and we need to start tackling those issues and try to improve the lives of communities of color.” 

Below are some pieces of legislation that didn’t make it through the House or Senate.

ABANDONED OR KILLED BILLS

Record expungement. SB 5043, sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and HB 5146, sponsored by Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, sought to expand the current expungement process. Police and court records are currently only expunged if an individual is acquitted, a case is dismissed or abandoned. Legislators did not reach a compromise in the conference committee over proposed substitutes to the bills. 

“This is a very important issue,” Herring said at the close of Friday’s session. “It will change the lives of so many people who have served their time and have turned their lives around.”

Parole notification. SB 5050, Introduced by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, would require the Department of Corrections to release a paroled prisoner no sooner than 21 days after the date of notification by the Virginia Parole Board.

Qualified immunity. HB 5013, introduced by Bourne, would have ended qualified immunity for police officers. Guzmán, who voted for the bill, was disappointed it didn’t pass, but said she feels good about the House Democrats’ bills and is looking forward to the next General Assembly session in January.

Virginia led the way during the special session where others haven’t, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn said in a press release.

“Together with our colleagues in the Senate, Virginia is now a national leader in the effort to pass necessary improvements to policing and criminal justice,” Filler-Corn said. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

VCU announces spring semester changes as other colleges mull options

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia Commonwealth University announced Thursday that the spring semester will start one week later and spring break will be canceled to help mitigate the risk of COVID-19.

The start date will move from Jan. 19 to Jan. 25. After the conclusion of winter break the university will implement a phased re-opening similar to the fall semester. That means classes will be a combination of in-person, hybrid and online.

Spring break was removed from the university's academic calendar and two reading days were added on Feb. 23 and March 24. The last day of classes will now be on May 5 for the Monroe Park Campus and May 7 for the MCV Campus.

“Our public health response team, which includes medical and infectious disease

experts, recommended eliminating spring break to mitigate the risk of COVID-19,” VCU President Michael Rao said in a press release.

Rao said the university’s priority is to be able to conduct classes while maintaining the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and other members of the community.

“Flexibility remains critical in addressing evolving situations presented by COVID-19, including changes in the prevalence of infection in our community, as well as changes in requirements, guidelines and best practices,” Rao said.

Other university officials across the state are also exploring options in regard to the spring opening and semester.

Michael Stowe, spokesman at Virginia Tech, said in an email that he expects the school will announce plans about the spring semester by Monday. The spring semester starts at Virginia Tech on Jan. 19.

McGregor McCance, spokesman for the University of Virginia, said in an email that the university will announce any plans about its spring semester later this month. The spring semester is currently scheduled to begin at Virginia on Jan. 20.

Other Virginia universities have various start dates for the 2021 academic year. James Madison University is scheduled to start classes on Jan. 11. The University of Richmond will begin classes on Jan. 19. George Mason University begins the spring semester on Jan. 25.

Final examinations for VCU’s Monroe Park Campus will be held May 6-13, while the MCV Campus final examinations will be held May 10-14.

“We will update you soon on COVID-19 testing and other measures we will be taking as we conclude the fall semester and prepare for our return to campus for spring semester,” Rao said.

Delegate Plans To Reintroduce Quarantine Pay Bill Next Session

 

By Zachary Klosko, By Capital New Source

RICHMOND, Va. -- Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, said she is no stranger to the struggles of low-paying jobs. Guzmán said she immigrated to the United States from Peru as a single mother and worked multiple minimum wage jobs just to be able to pay rent and care for her daughter.

Guzmán has a mission to secure better financial benefits for minimum wage workers, but she said it’s not going as planned.

Guzmán’s House Bill 5116 was killed in a Senate committee during the Virginia General Assembly special session after being passed by the House. The General Assembly is currently meeting to tackle the state budget and other issues that have come up due to COVID-19.

The bill would have mandated quarantine pay for employees of businesses with more than 25 workers. It would require public and private employers to provide paid quarantine leave that could be immediately used by the employee, regardless of how long they had been employed. The paid quarantine leave could be used for the employee’s health care needs or for care of a family member with an illness or health condition related to COVID-19.

Guzmán said she’s frustrated, but she plans to introduce the bill again during the next legislative session. 

“Most of the arguments that I heard was because businesses are hurting and it was not the right time,” Guzmán said. “I think it's like we hear a lot about businesses but we don't hear about the working class and who's going to be, you know, fighting for them.”

Guzmán introduced a bill in the spring session before the coronavirus to require employers to provide paid sick leave for employees. After the Committee on Appropriations killed that bill, Guzmán introduced her current bill as an effort to keep advocating for worker's rights.

Kim Bobo, executive director for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said her organization is in favor of Guzmán’s bill. Bobo said paid sick days and getting paid a minimum wage are basic standards employers should be able to provide for their employees without government assistance.

“We really don't believe that public funds should be used to subsidize employers providing such a basic core standard as paid sick days,” Bobo said. “We will not include anything like that in a bill going forward.”

Being able to take paid time off can have a larger impact on the community because workers don’t have to choose between their families’ well-being and a paycheck, Bobo said.

“They will stay home when their children are sick and they won't send their kids to school sick, which is what happens right now,” she said.

Bobo isn’t the only supporter of Guzmán’s bill. Eighty-three percent of Virginians support paid time off mandates, according to a recent YouGov poll commissioned in part by the Interfaith Center. 

Del. Chris Head, R-Roanoke, voiced his concerns during the bill’s third reading on Sept. 10. Head said Guzmán’s bill largely mirrors federal legislation. 

“This bill is going to cause businesses who might hire people to think twice about it,” Head said. “It's going to raise their expenses for hiring people, and it's going to end up hurting many of the very people that you're trying to help with this legislation.”

The Department of Labor and Industry estimated the bill would cost the department over $46,000 in 2021 and an additional $92,000 in 2022, according to the bill’s impact statement. The Department of Medical Assisted Services estimated the costs at $28.8 million for fiscal year 2021 and $29.8 million for fiscal year 2022. The bill would last until July 1, 2021, or until Gov. Ralph Northam’s state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic expires.

Guzmán said she isn’t deterred. After Northam and first lady Pamela Northam announced they tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 25, Guzmán said she needed to quarantine at home. She had visited a school with the first lady just a few days prior.

“Listen, there are 1.2 million Virginians out there that, if they were in the same situation that we are today, they would continue to go to work, because they don't have a dime,” Guzmán said firmly. “Please pass the message to the governor and the first lady.”

Virginia voter registration continues to climb as deadline looms

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The deadline to register to vote in Virginia is Tuesday, Oct. 13, and organizations and government officials continue to remind people to register by the deadline. 

Gov. Ralph Northam encouraged residents to register to vote before the deadline, and said in a statement Friday that it has never been easier to vote. The statement coincides with Virginia’s annual High School Student Voter Registration Week. 

This year over 1 million absentee ballots have been requested, Andrea Gaines, director of community relations at the Virginia Department of Elections, said in an email. Around 370,000 absentee ballots have been returned as of Thursday, Gaines said. 

Early, in-person voting has also yielded a large turnout. More than 420,000 people have voted in-person as of Oct. 8.

“It is the largest turnout we have seen at this time of year in Virginia,” Gaines said.

This is the first year there has been no-excuse absentee voting and a 45-day early voting period. The General Assembly recently passed a host of voting reform bills to allow for these changes. 

Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond is spreading the message to vote through VCU Votes, a class that coordinates voter engagement events and educates students and faculty members about voting.

“Our messages emphasize that registering to vote is easy,” Nicole O’Donnell, an assistant professor in public relations who teaches the class said in an email. “It should take less than five minutes of your time.”

VCU Votes has reached thousands of individuals through social media. Students are excited to vote, and they are well versed and knowledgeable about politics, O’Donnell said.

Getting students to register to vote has not been a problem at VCU, Jacqueline Smith-Mason, senior associate dean at VCU and co-chair of VCU Votes Advisory Council said in an email. However, she encourages people to check the Virginia Department of Elections website to ensure they’re registered to vote.

“It would be disappointing to think that you are registered to vote and later learn that your application was not processed,” Smith-Mason said.

Problems can arise if students renew or update their license with their home address, according to Adam Lockett, a VCU student who volunteers with Virginia21, which aims to drive civic engagement among college students. That updated information is sent to a registrar in the student’s home district, but the student may have planned to vote where their university is located.

Lockett said that students who renewed their driver's license in the past year should verify their address at the Department of Elections website before the registration deadline.

VCU Votes has arranged a number of events, including film screenings and registration drives. There are still two drives left. One will take place Oct. 12 at the Hunton Student Center on the MCV campus while the other will occur Oct. 13 at the Stuart C. Siegel Center.

Nationwide initiatives such as National Voter Registration Day, which occurred Sept. 22, broke new ground. An estimated 1.5 million people registered to vote nationally during the event this year, the largest number of registrations since the campaign started in 2012, according to the organization’s website. Celebrities got involved to help the cause trend on Twitter with #NationalVoterRegistrationDay. 

A record number of over 5.8 million Virginians have registered to vote as of Aug. 31, when looking at records that go back to 1976. Over 5.5 million voters were registered in the 2016 presidential election year, and turnout that year hit 72%. 

Individuals can register to vote through the state elections website or by mailing in a registration form, which must be postmarked by Oct. 13.

Other upcoming deadlines include Oct. 23 to request an absentee ballot by mail, or Oct. 31 to request an absentee ballot in person. All absentee ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by noon on the third day after the election.

 

 

‘Black Space Matters’ Exhibit Transforms Asphalt Lot into Garden

The “Commonwealth” exhibit features work from 10 artists including an outdoor installation created by community farmer, Duron Chavis, who builds gardens throughout Richmond. The resiliency garden is installed in an asphalt lot next to the Institute for Contemporary Art and features 30 raised beds of fruits, vegetables and flowers. Photo by VCU CNS.

By India Espy-Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A local activist transformed a vacant lot outside the Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond to highlight issues of food security and the importance of Black and brown community spaces.

The “Commonwealth” exhibit at Virginia Commonwealth University’s ICA features work from 10 artists including an outdoor installation created by activist and community farmer Duron Chavis who builds gardens throughout Richmond. The full exhibit seeks to examine how common resources influence the wealth and well-being of communities.

Chavis proposed the resiliency garden exhibit in 2019 during a public forum at the ICA. The resiliency garden—food grown to weather the tough times and to have food independence— is installed in an asphalt lot at Grace and Belvidere streets next to the ICA and features 30 raised beds of fruits, vegetables and flowers.

An extension of the garden exhibit is the “Black Space Matters” mural by Southside artist Silly Genius. A wall in the lot is painted, with fruit making the word Black and beneath the garden in big, yellow letters is “Space Matters.” The garden beds have historic quotes from civil rights leaders Kwame Ture and Malcolm X, among other activists. 

“Black Space Matters means that Black people need space,” Chavis said. “We need space that is explicitly designed, planned, and implemented by Black and brown people.”

Chavis, along with a crew of volunteers, started building the garden on Aug. 10 while the ICA temporarily closed to install other exhibits.

“We invited him to think with us about how to activate a vacant lot next to the ICA,” said Stephanie Smith, ICA chief curator. “You could think about what it means to take a space and institutional resources, then give them over to an activist.”

Chavis seeks to address lack of food access through his activism. Food insecurity, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food,” is an issue in Richmond’s low-income neighborhoods. The city had over 35,000 food insecure people in 2018, according to Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks.

“In a conversation about food justice, Black people are predominately impacted by lack of food access,” Chavis said. “We need space to address that issue.”

Low income communities need access to resources and necessary skills to solve food wealth issues on their own, he said. 

“We do not need anybody to come into our community to drop off food,” Chavis said. 

He’s been doing work like this since 2012 and doesn’t have a hard count of how many garden beds have been built. 

“Dozens, oh God, it’s all across the city,” he said. 

Chavis amplified his efforts this year because of the pandemic. He fundraised and received a grant, according to a VPM report, to build over 200 resiliency gardens with the help of volunteers. 

Quilian Riano, an architect at New York studio DSGN AGNC, designed the concept drawing for the ICA garden, which was envisioned as a public space for conversation and lecture. The completed garden is near identical to the original design except with an added texture and dimension, Riano said.

 The “Commonwealth” exhibit will be open until Jan. 17, 2021. After the exhibit ends, the gardens’ supplies and plants will be redistributed to other resiliency garden project locations throughout Richmond. Chavis collaborates with other groups and people to help people grow their own food during the pandemic.

Tickets to the indoor exhibitions can be reserved on the ICA website. Exhibits include a video performance by indigenous artist Tanya Lukin Linklater, Carolina Caycedo’s “Distressed Debt” and a sculpture by Lukin Linklater and Tiffany Shaw-Collinge.

Civil Rights trail adds 12 new sites with focus on education struggle

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The half-mile road leading to a park in Prince Edward County was packed with cars parked on one side and a park ranger directing traffic on the other side. This was a normal 1950s summer day at what was then the only state park for African Americans in Virginia.

Prince Edward State Park for Negroes, as it was then called, could draw up to a thousand African American visitors per day that could rent bathing suits and cabins overnight.

“It was a place for people to recreate and be—they didn’t have that opportunity in other places,” recounted Veronica Flick, Twin Lakes State Park manager.

Prince Edward State Park was adjacent to Goodwin Lake Recreational Area where only whites patrons were allowed. The two areas merged and were renamed Twin Lakes State Park in 1986, according to the park’s website.

Twin Lakes is one of 12 new sites added this fall to the Virginia’s Crossroads Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail spanning Central and Southern Virginia. The trail was established in 2004 and focuses on the struggle African Americans, Native Americans and women faced to receive an education in the commonwealth.

The parks were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a program established by Congress to help men find work during the Great Depression. Twin Lakes was added to the trail because of the education the CCC provided to African Americans who helped build the park in the 1930s. The builders were taught framing and roofing skills, Flick said.

“In ‘those days,’ education was the most important and it was denied,” said Magi Van Eps, tourism coordinator for Prince Edward County. “If you were not a white male, you didn’t have access to an education.”

The impact of being on the trail brings more attention to Twin Lakes and its history, Flick said.

“For us to be a part of this trail, it not only brings more awareness to what the history of this park is, and its importance to so many people,” Flick said.

The park has added roadside historical markers, explaining the origins of Prince Edward State Park. One sign on the grounds of the park tells the story of Maceo Martin, who sued the state when he was denied access to Staunton River State Park. The lawsuit led Virginia to add the Prince Edward State Park for African American visitors to follow the “separate but equal” law at the time.

The trail also has added stops at Greensville County Training School in Emporia and Buckingham Training School in Dillwyn, according to Van Eps. The sites were Rosenwald schools, established by former Sears President Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington to help Southern, African American children and teenagers receive an education.

The expansion of the trail 16 years after its establishment was a result of additional funding. The trail was originally envisioned to have more than 60 sites, Van Eps said. Instead, the trail was only able to add 41 sites using a grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation.

“There were all these other sites that were still very important, but they were overlooked at that time just because there wasn’t enough funding to fund them all,” Van Eps said.

After receiving $70,000 in funding from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission in 2020 the trail was able to add a dozen more sites. Virginia’s Crossroads matched the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission funding.

The L.E. Coleman African-American Museum in Halifax and the Beneficial Benevolent Society of the Loving Sisters and Brothers of Hampden Sydney in Prince Edward County were also added to the trail during the expansion. Bobby Conner, who helped found James Solomon Russell-Saint Paul’s College Museum and Archives, another site on the trail that displays the history of the historically Black college that closed in 2013, said the additions couldn’t have happened at a better time.

“The expansion of it has come at a perfect time with everything that’s gone on this past spring,” Conner said, referring to the protests that took place in Virginia and around the country after George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minnesota.

“Anybody that goes along this trail will learn incredible amounts of history on what the struggle was from right after the Civil War all the way up until recently,” Conner said.

Spanberger, Freitas race outspends presidential campaign in Virginia

By Brandon Shillingford, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A closely contested congressional race has spent almost $1.7 million more on political advertisements in Virginia than the presidential campaign.

More than $11 million has been spent on ads for the Congressional 7th District race. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the incumbent Democrat, faces challenger Nick Freitas, a Republican state delegate. The district includes Culpeper, Chesterfield, Henrico and Nottoway counties. 

Meanwhile, more than $9 million has been spent in Virginia this year on ads for the presidential election between Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden. The data posted on the Virginia Public Access Project’s website includes money spent on broadcast TV, cable, radio, and internet ads. 

This is Spanberger’s first re-election campaign, after defeating two-term Republican incumbent Dave Brat in 2018. 

“The 7th District of Virginia is one of the marquee congressional elections in the country and is drawing very significant amounts of money,” said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Fredericksburg-based University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies. “Virginia may not be getting the attention it received four or eight years ago, but the 7th District is one of three highly competitive congressional districts in Virginia.”

The Democrats have outspent more Republican candidates in both races. More than $6.6 million has been invested in ads that are either pro-Spanberger or anti-Freitas, while there has been $4.4 million invested in ads that promote Freitas or criticize Spanberger.

Biden and groups supporting him have spent more than $6 million on ads compared to nearly $3 million spent to promote Trump.

Farnsworth sees this as less of an anomaly but more of a continuing strategy in presidential campaigns.

“The nature of the way the state has changed over these last several election cycles, new donations to presidential campaigns would be better off being directed to states that are more competitive, like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Ohio,” he said. “Polls have shown Virginia wouldn't be the best place to spend your presidential campaign dollars in 2020.”

Other closely contested congressional races are the 2nd District in Hampton Roads and the 5th District, which stretches from Fauquier County in Northern Virginia to Danville in Southern Virginia. Democrats have also outspent their opponents in these races.

“All three districts are winnable for the Democrats and Republicans, and this results in a very large amount of donations and large sums of money spent on advertisements,” Farnsworth said.

More than $8 million has been spent on ads in the 2nd Congressional District, while more than $4 million has been spent in the race for the 5th Congressional District.

The 5th District has also been in the headlines lately due to Republicans declining to re-nominate incumbent Rep. Denver Riggleman after he officiated a same-sex wedding in 2019. Republicans instead nominated Bob Good who won the primary and is running against Democrat Cameron Webb. 

However, the 7th District is unique because of the different segments of the electorate that live within it, making it an invaluable asset to candidates, Farnsworth said. 

“You have suburban voters in the Richmond area and suburban voters in the Fredericksburg area, then a number of more rural jurisdictions in between,” he said.

Farnsworth pointed out that the 7th District was originally drawn to help Republicans get elected, but has recently struggled to do so due to the lack of support from suburban voters during the Trump administration. Over $4 million was spent on broadcast ads to elect Spanberger in 2018, with spending for Brat’s campaign trailing behind at just over $3 million.

“One of the effects of the Trump presidency has been increasingly aggressive donations on the part of Democrats,” he said. “The 7th District is a highly competitive district, that’s why both Democrats and Republicans are investing very large sums of money in that contest.”

The most money in the 7th District race has been invested in broadcast ads, followed by cable, radio and Facebook, respectively, according to VPAP. 

VCU emergency room sees increase in opioid overdoses patients

By Aliviah Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The pandemic could be driving an increase in opioid overdoses, according to recently published data and insights from people who work in a local treatment center.

Virginia Commonwealth University has released a new study that shows a surge in patients at the VCU Medical Center in Richmond who were admitted due to opioid overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers reported a 123% increase in non-fatal opioid overdoses at the emergency room between March and June 2019 to the same period this year. The research has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Taylor Ochalek, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, was the lead author of the study. She said researchers have been collecting data on opioid overdoses since last year, but they recently decided to examine overdose trends to see if the pandemic was impacting overdoses.

“Social isolation, increased psychiatric symptoms, decreased access to non medical care and the stress that might come from unemployment could increase the risk of relapse to opioid use and then potential overdose,” Ochalek said. 

The study’s authors found that Black patients were among the largest demographic associated with overdoses during the pandemic in the hospital they tracked. In March and June of 2019, 63% of opioid overdose patients were Black. In March and June 2020 the number increased to 80%. The authors noted that the findings were a small sample of patients and may not be generalizable to other locations. 

The McShin Foundation, a Henrico County-based drug recovery organization, has seen an increase of people coming in for treatment during the pandemic. The organization provides 11 recovery houses and 122 beds for participants. 

 “With a pandemic and an epidemic going on at once, It was important for us to have a safe place for those that needed help,” said Honesty Liller, the organization’s CEO.

The McShin Foundation started a podcast called Get in The Herd as a creative way to reach out once 12-step meetings were canceled because of the pandemic. The podcast offers discussion on addiction, recovery, stigma and advocacy.

The McShin Foundation also felt it was important to develop a recovery plan for participants who received stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, Liller said. The goal is to provide individuals in recovery with resources to manage finances during the pandemic. Some individuals made more money while on unemployment benefits than when they were working, according to a May report by NPR. 

“If you're someone using and you don't have any money every day, and you struggle to get $20 and then you're getting $800 a week? I mean, yeah, it's rough around here,” Liller said.

The Virginia Department of Health publishes quarterly reports on drug-related deaths. According to the report, fentanyl caused or contributed to death in almost 60% of fatal overdoses in 2019. That same year, almost 80% of all fatal overdoses of any substance were due to one or more opioids.

Overall, the number of fatal drug overdoses has increased annually since 2013, VDH reports. Opioids have been the leading force behind the increases in fatal overdoses since that year. 

The most recent report from the health department shows 355 fatal opioid overdoses in the first three months of the year. That includes fentanyl, heroin and prescription opioids, and is an 8.6% increase from the same reporting period last year. 

VDH didn’t publish data for the second quarter of the year due to the pandemic. The organization plans to publish overdose data ranging from July to September on Oct.15, according to the health department.

New poll shows Virginia voters strongly support police reform

By Megan Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A recent poll finds Virginia voters strongly support police reform and nearly half of respondents say Joe Biden would handle the pandemic better than President Donald Trump.

The Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University released the poll Sept. 29 following a poll earlier that month which found Biden is leading Trump by 5 points among the state’s likely voters. 

The poll surveyed 796 registered Virginia voters by landline and cell phone. The Wason Center is 95% confident that the projected populations of those surveyed in this poll are accurate within a 3.9% margin of error, said Wason Center Research Lab Director Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo.

Of those surveyed, 29% identify as Republican, 34% as Democrat and 32% as Independent. The remaining 6% had no preference, identified with another party or did not respond.

Bromley-Trujillo said the center chose to focus on two key issues among voters: police reform and the pandemic. The poll asked about police reform opinions in response to the civil unrest seen across the country since May. Protests began around the nation after the death of George Floyd and in response to a series of fatal encounters between police and Black individuals. Protests swelled again recently after a grand jury did not indict any officers with the death of Kentucky woman Breonna Taylor. The protests have demanded more accountability within police operations.

More than 90% of respondents supported de-escalation training for police, requiring police body cameras, and mandating police officers intervene when a colleague uses unlawful force. 

A majority of Republicans say police are either excellent or good regarding the equal treatment of racial and ethnic groups, while a low percentage of Democrats agree (62%-9%). Females rated police lower on this question than males.

When asked if civilian oversight boards should be created to investigate police misconduct, 70% of voters supported the proposal.

Just over 75% of voters supported both the requirement of police departments to publicly report incidents involving the use of force and the establishment of a public database to track police officers found responsible for misconduct.

“I was somewhat surprised by the level of agreement on some of the police reform measures,” Bromley-Trujillo said. “Though the public is very polarized, there are still places where they show agreement.”

Voters are also divided when it comes to allowing civilians to sue police officers for excessive force or misconduct (52% say it should be allowed and 44% say it should not be). Voters narrowly oppose banning police use of military-grade weapons (50%-47%).

Recent state legislation reflects this voter interest in police reform and criminal justice. Bills establishing a statewide system that pairs teams of mental health professionals and peer recovery specialists with police officers and the automatic expungement of certain convictions are examples of legislation that have advanced in the Virginia General Assembly in the last two months.

Almost half of surveyed voters believe Biden would handle COVID-19 issues better than Trump, while 36% thought the opposite. The remaining 11% said neither candidate would be good. 

The poll found that a majority of respondents said the U.S. is loosening COVID-19 restrictions too quickly, and 41% said the country is taking too long. Democrats and Republicans are strongly divided over the country’s rate of reducing COVID-19 restrictions; 86% of Democrats said restrictions are being reduced too fast, while nearly 75% of Republicans said it is taking too long.

The poll was sent out before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, which is why opinions on Supreme Court confirmations were not surveyed, said Bromley-Trujillo. 

In order to hone in on police reform as much as possible, Bromley-Trujillo said the center did not explore the economy, healthcare, climate change and immigration. However, she noted voters mention these topics as reasons to choose a candidate. 

“The wildfires in the West have also highlighted the issue of climate change, and I suspect that immigration and other issues will come back to the forefront as related events occur and as political elites, the public and interest groups raise them,” Bromley-Trujillo said. 

Marcus alert bill passes House and Senate, moves to Northam’s desk

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly have approved a proposal to establish a statewide system that pairs teams of mental health professionals and peer recovery specialists with police officers responding to mental health crises.

The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 24-15 on Thursday. The House gave the legislation the green light in September with a vote of 57-39. The proposal now needs a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam to become law.

House Bill 5043 is sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond. Dubbed the mental health awareness response and community understanding services, or Marcus alert system, the bill honors the life of Marcus-David Peters, who was shot and killed in 2018 during an encounter with Richmond police. Peters, a 24-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus and high school biology teacher, was naked and unarmed during the shooting. After running into traffic on the interstate, Peters charged at an officer who deployed a Taser and then fired his gun. Peters’ family said he was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Bourne’s bill requires law enforcement to consider mitigating “impact to care” by having officers not wearing their uniforms and using unmarked vehicles, when possible. 

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, did not directly comment on Bourne’s bill, but she said mental health calls are “volatile and dangerous” and that co-response teams require extensive training for officers and mental health workers.

“Additionally, there needs to be sufficient funding to make both trained officers and mental health workers who serve on co-response teams available at any time of day,” Schrad said  in a message.

Schrad said the organization supports efforts to create co-responder teams for mental health calls. She said the commonwealth must address the “overwhelming need” to improve mental health and preventative services locally.

“However, we cannot support efforts that would disarm law enforcement officers and take them out of uniform on mental health calls,” Schrad said. 

Bourne’s bill would require Virginia Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, in collaboration with Criminal Justice Services, to create two plans by July 1, 2021. One creates a written plan for the development of a Marcus alert system, and another sets guidelines for law enforcement. By the same date, localities must also create a database identifying individuals with mental or behavioral health illness, developmental or intellectual disability or brain injury. Such individuals or a legal guardian may voluntarily provide the individual’s address and relevant health information to the database, which would be accessible to 911 and the Marcus alert system.

The bill would require Virginia Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and Criminal Justice Services to establish guidelines and training programs for crisis teams, call center employees, clinical staff and Marcus alert system users by Dec. 1, 2021.

Every locality must have a Marcus alert system with care teams by July 1, 2022, according to the bill. 

Mental Health America of Virginia Executive Director Bruce Cruser, who called the bill “a significant step forward” during a House committee meeting on Aug. 25, said the proposal may need further review in order to promote coordinated responses across localities. 

“We’re just anxious to see how we can work out language that is coordinated,” Cruser said.

Opinions vary among mental health personnel regarding potential safety risks posed by crisis situations, Cruser said. 

“If a mental health professional is being put in harm’s way, I mean obviously that’s a concern,” he said. “But I think how the system is structured is really the key.”

Cruser said there’s uncertainty in the mental health field regarding how the system would work in different areas across Virginia and whether personnel would be equipped to respond to crises.

“Some are well trained in de-escalation, and some are not,” Cruser said. “That’s really one of the challenges here, is to work with local community service boards and localities to determine the best way to intervene that brings about the desired result, which is less injury to anyone and better outcomes.”

Cruser said Mental Health America of Virginia supports the goals of Bourne’s legislation, but that a larger effort is needed to prevent crisis situations from happening in the first place.

“If there’s a call for service and it’s a mental health call, well then the response should be mental health-focused,” Cruser said. “The law enforcement response should be reserved for what law enforcement are trained to deal with best. The challenge is how you determine the nature of the call in the first place.”

Bill stalls to hold localities responsible for protest damage

By Ada Romano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A General Assembly bill is likely dead for the session that would have held localities accountable for damages caused by protesters if an adequate police response was not provided.

Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, said he proposed House Bill 5026 to assure localities provide proper police protection during protests in an effort to minimize damages to personal property and businesses. The bill was referred to the House Courts of Justice committee in August but has not been addressed, and probably won’t be according to its sponsor. 

 Protests erupted around the state and nation since May, with demonstrators calling for social justice and police reform after George Floyd died in police custody. The protests swelled again last week after a grand jury indicted on wanton endangerment charges one out of three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, a Kentucky woman who died after police fired shots in her apartment while serving a no-knock warrant. 

Cole submitted the bill in response to what he said was Virginia local government officials ordering police to stand down and not break up unlawful protests that included rioting and looting. 

“It should be obvious now, that you cannot count on Democrats to keep you safe,” Cole said. “When violent protests hit, they order the police to back off and let rioters run wild.”

Buildings and vehicles were burned in Richmond in the initial days of protests following Floyd’s death, including a public transit bus. There was widespread property damage throughout the city which included graffitti, broken windows and stolen property. 

The Richmond Police Department instituted an 8 p.m. curfew a few days later and the Virginia State Police department, along with other local counties, began providing additional support. 

The Richmond Fire Department recently estimated that the city saw nearly $4 million in fire damage in the first 18 days of protests, according to a report by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Police spent more than $1.6 million on police overtime pay during the first month of protests in Richmond, according to a report by Richmond BizSense.

Protests have included calls from demonstrators to defund the police. Cole said defunding police would make communities less safe, and early police intervention could prevent situations from turning violent. 

“People pay taxes for police protection, so if local elected officials withhold that protection, they should be held liable for the results of their actions,” Cole said. 

Steve Neal, an author and retired Chesterfield County police captain, said the bill contradicts a 2005 Supreme Court ruling stating police have “no duty” to protect civilians from harm from another person.

Neal said the language in the bill is too vague to enforce and said he felt an obligation to protect citizens since becoming a law enforcement officer.

“Every police officer I’ve ever known, including myself, would risk their lives trying to protect other people. That’s what we do on a daily basis,” Neal said. “The police are actually doing that even though the law says we don’t exactly have that duty.” 

The staff of the Commission on Local Government analyzed the bill’s fiscal impact and collected responses from several localities. The Commission wrote that a majority of localities responded the bill would likely raise insurance premiums and legal fees because it can increase litigation resulting from the bill. 

A Virginia Beach representative questioned what evidence would have to be submitted or found to prove a locality “intentionally” or “negligently” provided an adequate police response.

A Wise County representative stated: “What is adequate in my mind may not be adequate in the minds of others.”

 A representative from the town of Marion stated: “This could open Pandora's Box for localities already suffering from reduced police staffing and increased incidents of civil unrest.”

Jessica Moore has been at the forefront of Richmond protests. She said she became more involved in the movement after learning about the lack of protection against COVID-19 in the Richmond City Justice Center, where her friend is incarcerated. 

“It’s become a lot more passionate for me just because no one else is listening. Our mayor is not listening, our governor is not listening,” Moore said. “We’re going to take matters into our own hands.”

 Moore, along with thousands who protested in Richmond over the past five months, advocates defunding the Richmond Police Department. She said it’s essential to reallocate tax dollars to schools and other community services. 

“If they’re going to continue to fund the police, then the funds need to be spread out into programs to teach them to work with people with mental illnesses and other training to help them be more sensitive to certain situations,” Moore said.

Moore believes less response is needed, not more, as Cole’s bill proposes. Moore said the police are provided tear gas and other weapons, which are unnecessary. 

Legislators advanced several bills regarding criminal justice reform during the General Assembly special session, which kicked off in August to tackle criminal justice reform, the budget and other issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cole said that he has not decided if he will introduce the same bill in the next session.

College Republicans Discuss Future of GOP in Virginia

By Brandon Shillingford, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Young Republicans say this is a crucial time in the country's history amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the country facing a reckoning in its relationship with racial justice and an open Supreme Court seat.

Many of the Generation Z Republican and conservative voters, ages 18-23, are participating in their first or second presidential election and are ready for their voices to be heard.

Cameron Cox, vice president of campaigns for the College Republicans at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, sees the pandemic as a priority that must be at the forefront of the government's concerns, but it shouldn’t be handled by shutting the economy down. Cox is no stranger to politics. His father Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, has served in the General Assembly since 1990 and is considering a run for Virginia governor. 

“At a national level, this means continuing to give states the guidance and tools they need to effectively manage their people,” Cox said in an email. “It means helping, not hindering the market, in aiding our nation’s economic recovery. It means empowering people to get back to work and provide for their families.”

Andrew Vail, chairman of the College Republicans at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, believes COVID-19 and racial injustice are challenges for the country which will eventually pass. 

“People organize and politicians make laws and, you know, social movements go on,” Vail said. “At some point the world will calm down.”

Vail thinks that cities in Virginia had less of a challenge containing Black Lives Matter protests compared to New York City, Portland, Seattle and Washington D.C., where protests attracted tens of thousands of people and often saw conflicts between opposing groups. 

He said the protests throughout the commonwealth were “pretty normal protests” with people utilizing their constitutional rights. 

Courtney Hope Britt, southern regional vice chair for the College Republican National Committee and chair emeritus to the College Republican Federation of Virginia, was disappointed with responses to the protests in Richmond. Painting murals and taking down Confederate statues “don’t change the day-to-day reality of Black people in our state,” Britt said in an email. 

More schools are shedding Confederate names, but Britt doesn’t believe those moves will effectively deal with educational disparities between Black and white students.

“These problems are complex and incredibly deep rooted in our systems, and so it will take time to rework things,” she said. “I don't really see that being done right now.” 

Britt also disagrees with Gov. Ralph Northam’s handling of the pandemic. A poll conducted by Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern universities found 59% of respondents agreed with the governor’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in July but only 46% echoed that sentiment in August.

Virginia’s rate of 2.2 COVID-19 tests per 1,000 residents puts it at No. 29 in the U.S., according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Britt said that while testing has improved, “we’re still lagging way behind where we should be.”

“Governor Northam is a medical doctor; he should have been as well prepared to respond to the pandemic as anyone and yet he did worse than almost everyone,” she said.

Cox said the Democratic majority in the Virginia General Assembly needs to address the state’s projected $2.7 billion shortfall. He also said that reopening schools safely are issues that need to be resolved. There needs to be “safe, in-person learning for students, as well as resources for kids not in the classroom to avoid being left behind,” he said. 

“Education is at the center of entities affected by the coronavirus,” Cox said. “As school systems handle their students in different ways, it’s important for the state to help, not hinder, schools in this process.”

Vail and Britt, a recent graduate of The T. C. Williams School of Law at the University of Richmond, said that there is plenty of ideological diversity between the younger and older members of the Republican Party. Britt said the Republican Party has been better about “intentionally recruiting greater diversity into the party.”

“I'm really proud of that,” she said.

Vail echoed this sentiment.

 “I’ve seen that a lot of conservatives lean more in a Libertarian direction, and most Republicans in their ’40s and ’50s are sort of your George Bush brand of conservative,” Vail said.

Richard Anderson, chairman for the Republican Party of Virginia, sees young Republicans as invaluable assets that will serve the nation for years to come. He said they play a crucial element in campaigns through door knocking, phone banking, and registration of new voters. 

“Many will go on to serve in local, state, and federal offices,” Anderson said. “In that capacity, they have vital roles to play in shaping public policy today and in the future."

Many millennials and Gen Zers who recently have become active in the Republican Party are prioritizing issues that may be considered more liberal. According to a Pew Research study, almost half of millennials and Gen Z Republicans are more likely than their older counterparts to say that the federal government is doing too little to lessen the impact of climate change. 

Rather than just being against the Green New Deal, young conservatives are working on their own climate proposals like the American Conservative Coalition’s American Climate Contract and the Declaration of Energy Independence, according to Britt. The movements seek to fight climate change and provide clean energy to Americans. 

“We are beginning to address issues that have often been left to the Democrats with positive arguments,” Britt said. 

There are younger conservatives who do not support President Donald Trump and who want to see a new Republican platform grounded in Constitutional principles but “more conducive to an evolving American landscape.” A Georgetown University graduate launched gen z gop in July to reach younger voters and establish a “palatable alternative to the left.”

Britt views Trump positively, however. He has brought an invigoration and excitement to the party that hasn’t been seen before, she said. This makes her excited and optimistic about the party’s future.

“I'm excited for us to continue building on that for the next four years and beyond,” Britt said.

Virginia early voting nears 200,000 in first week

By Joseph Whitney Smith, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia voting is off to an active start, with tens of thousands of people hitting the polls during the 45-day early voting period. 

Over 164,000 citizens have voted in person, while more than 926,000 absentee ballots have been issued as of Sept. 25, said Andrea Gaines, director of community relations and compliance support at the Virginia Department of Elections. Over half a million people returned absentee ballots in the 2016 presidential election, according to the department

Breaking the traditional custom of voting on Election Day, the governor and other top officials hit the polls when they opened Sept. 18. The General Assembly earlier this year removed restrictions to vote absentee and allowed early, in-person voting until Oct. 31. The move allowed individuals to cast their ballots 45 days early.

“While the pandemic has made this an unprecedented election year, Virginia voters have several safe and easy ways to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a press release. “Voting is an essential part of our democracy, and I encourage every Virginia voter to know their options and make a plan for safely casting their ballot.” 

About 20 people were lined up, six-feet apart, to vote Friday morning at the Henrico County registrar’s office. Carrington Blencowe was one of the voters. She said that voting early is more convenient for her family. 

“This makes it a lot easier than trying to vote the day of because it gives people more time and we’re a working country,” Blencowe said.

Voters do not have to fill out an application to vote in person early.They just head to their general registrar’s office or satellite voting location, show ID and cast a ballot.

Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said previous early voting and absentee ballots were much more inconvenient. 

“It involved signing a statement saying you had one of a range of acceptable excuses, they included military service, being away at college, travel plans, working from out of county, or disabilities,” Farnsworth said. “When you think about how much easier it is to vote via mail-in, my guess is that it will remain popular after the COVID-19 crisis has passed.”

The last day to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 23. The Virginia Department of Electionsrecommends that applicants return their ballot as soon as possible due to the high number of ballots issued. In2018 and 2019,90% and 85% of requested absentee ballots were returned, respectively.

Despite pandemic, some Virginia registrars report surge of poll workers

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Several places in Virginia say they’ve seen a surge in people applying to be Election Day-workers, despite initial concerns there would be a shortage.

The U.S. is facing a nationwide poll workers shortage, Gov. Ralph Northam said in a Tweet posted in early September urging Virginians to apply for the position. Some districts expected a shortage because they anticipated high turnout. Poll workers fulfill a variety of part-time and full-time roles, from assisting with absentee ballot distribution, answering phone calls, supervising early voting, and helping at the polls on Election Day. 

Before polls opened last week, Virginia Beach said it needed 1,200 poll workers this year instead of the 800 they usually have, according to CBS-3 (WTKR-TV). 

On the other hand, Arlington County, posted online that it has filled “beyond capacity” its need for poll workers in its 54 precincts. No shortage of poll workers is expected in Fairfax County, which will have more than 3,800 election officers to work the county’s 243 polling locations, about half of which are first-time poll workers, according to Brian Worthy, a Fairfax County spokesperson. The county’s 3,800 workers this year is about 500 more than it had in the last election, and extra staff is on hand to process the mail-in ballots.

“Unlike other jurisdictions that I’ve heard may be having difficulty recruiting election officers, Fairfax County has experienced a very strong interest from people who want to serve,” Worthy stated over email. “In fact, we’ve had about ten times the normal number of people apply to become election officers.” 

Recruiting poll workers is also not an issue in Orange County, located 20 miles from Charlottesville. Donna Harpold, the county’s director of elections and general registrar, said she doesn’t know if being in a smaller county impacts volunteer availability compared to Northern Virginia.

“They obviously have the population advantage, but that may also lead to people being more wary of serving due to exposure concerns,” Harpold wrote in an email.

 Lisa Betterton, general registrar and director of elections in Isle of Wight, which has roughly 37,000 residents, said the Hampton Roads county has plenty of poll workers.

Poll workers and voters have expressed concern over potential exposure to the COVID-19 if polls are crowded on Election Day. Many people who volunteer at polling places across the country are retirees, the most at-risk demographic for serious complications and death from the disease. Election officials in Washington D.C. decided this year that working at a poll will count toward the community service hours required to graduate high school in the district.

Breaking with the tradition of voting on Election Day, Virginia’s top officials cast their votes on Sept. 18, the first day polls were open. Northam emphasized voters will have “several safe and easy ways” to vote. Over 164,000 residents hit the polls within the first week, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Virginia has allocated federal CARES Act funding to ensure that election officers have personal protective equipment and Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers will assist at polling places to ensure social distancing and sanitization measures are followed, according to Northam’s office.

Voters are required to wear masks. In order to limit physical interaction between individuals and to avoid voters sharing pens, Fairfax County will provide voters with “I voted” pens that they can use to fill out their ballots and keep instead of offering stickers.

The General Assembly passed several bills in the spring to make voting easier, such as turning Election Day into a state holiday, no excuse required to vote absentee and allowing early voting 45 days ahead of the election. Residents may vote early at their local registrar’s office from Sept. 18 to Oct. 31, or request a mail-in absentee ballot until Oct. 23, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Poll of Virginia voters favors Biden; shows mixed support for mail-in voting

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A poll released this week by the Virginia Commonwealth University L. Douglas Wilder School of Government shows presidential candidate Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner leading by double-digit margins in the commonwealth. 

The Richmond-based university conducted a telephone poll of just over 800 adults from Aug. 28 to Sept. 7. 

The results show Democratic nominee Biden ahead of President Donald Trump by 14 percentage points (53% to 39%). Warner, a Democrat who has represented Virginia in Congress for more than a decade, is ahead of his Republican challenger Daniel Gade by 17 percentage points (55% to 38%). The poll had a margin of error of 5.17 percentage points for all adults sampled and 6.22 percentage points for likely voters.

Biden is leading in the Northern, South Central and Tidewater regions of the state, while Trump leads in Western and Northwestern Virginia. 

Stephen Farnsworth, director at the Fredericksburg-based University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said that Trump’s message resonates with rural voters in the western part of the state.

“His focus on the message of Christian conservatives resonates well in rural areas,” Farnsworth said. “Trump has appointed politically conservative judges, and Christians have been well served by him.”

Farnsworth said that Trump tends to lose in suburban areas of Virginia such as Northern Virginia, where voters tend to be socially progressive but fiscally conservative.

The poll also provided insight into the demographics of Biden voters. 

“Something that was interesting was the strength of women as an indicator of support for Biden,” said Farrah Stone, who directed the VCU poll.

Women were more likely to support Biden over Trump by 22 percentage points (58% to 36%). Men preferred Biden over Trump by five percentage points (47% to 42%). In July, a Wilder School poll found that men were more likely to say they would vote for Trump.

The poll also shows Biden’s nomination of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate does not significantly affect his support among women or minorities. 

“If you’re looking at Kamala Harris, there aren’t significant differences between whites and minorities, or men and women,” Stone said. “What was significant was whether you were a Democrat or Republican.” 

Farnsworth said that vice presidential candidates often don’t change people’s votes, but they can help a candidate by increasing turnout among people who support the candidate but wouldn’t otherwise vote.

“If Biden’s pick of Harris ramps up turnout among African American voters, then that was a smart decision by Biden,” Farnsworth said. “This election is largely frozen in place; there aren’t many voters who are undecided.”

Hillary Clinton secured a Democratic victory in the commonwealth during the last presidential race, beating Trump by over 212,000 votes. The 2016 turnout of registered voters was higher than in 2012, but lower than 2008, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. 

The poll also asked voters about an issue that has recently come to the forefront of election news: the reliability of mail-in voting. 

Virginians are split on whether mail-in voting is trustworthy. When combined, 50% of respondents are “somewhat or very confident” that mail-in votes will be accurately cast and counted, while a combined 48% are not too or not at all confident about the process. Trust in mail-in voting is affected by party affiliation, with a majority of Republicans finding it untrustworthy, according to the VCU poll. 

“The differences are significant across party lines, which line up with voting and support for Trump,” Stone said. 

Sixty-seven percent of Republicans said they were “not at all” or “not too” confident in the accuracy of mail-in ballots. 

“Trump has tried to increase public doubts about mail-in voting,” Farnsworth said. “No previous candidates have emphasized mail-in voting this much, but it’s never been this significant before.”

Virginia bill seeks to guarantee free school meals to students advances to Senate

By Aliviah Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill this month to provide free school meals for 109,000 more public school students in the commonwealth.

House Bill 5113, introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, passed the chamber unanimously. Roem’s bill requires eligible public elementary and secondary schools to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“School food should be seen as an essential service that is free for everyone regardless of their income,” Roem said.

The program allows all students in an eligible school to receive free breakfast and lunch. Currently, 425 schools are eligible for CEP but don’t take part in the program, according to a document that details the financial impact of the legislation. More than 420 schools and 200,000 students participated in CEP during the 2018 to 2019 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education. 

The bill allows eligible schools to opt out of the program if participating is not financially possible.
Most Virginia food banks have purchased twice as much food each month since the pandemic started when compared to last year, according to Eddie Oliver, executive director of Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

“We're just seeing a lot of need out there and we know that school meal programs are really the front line of ensuring that kids in Virginia have the food they need to learn and thrive,” Oliver said.

Virginia school districts qualify for CEP if they have 40% or more enrolled students in a specified meal program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It also includes homeless, runaway, migrant and foster children, Roem said.

Sandy Curwood, director of the Virginia Department of Education Office of School Nutrition Programs, said school districts receive federal reimbursement based on a formula. 

“Making sure that children have access to good healthy food, and particularly through school meals I think is a great opportunity,” Curwood said.

The federal government will reimburse schools who have more than 62.5% students who qualify for free meals, Roem said. Schools with between 55% and 62.4% students enrolled will receive between 80% and 99% reimbursement. 

“If HB 5113 is law, how their children will eat during the school day will be one less worry for students and their families,”, said Semora Ward, community organizer for the Hampton Roads-based Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative. The meals are available whether children are physically in schools or attending virtual classes.

The Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative has raised $8,000 in the past three years for unpaid school meals in Hampton and Newport News, according to Ward.

“While we are pleased with these efforts and the outpouring of community support, we should have never had to do this in the first place,” she said. 

Roem was one of several legislators that took on the USDA earlier this year to not require students to be present when receiving free school meals during the pandemic. The Virginia General Assembly passed Roem’s bill earlier this year that allows school districts to distribute excess food to students eligible for the School Breakfast Program or National School Lunch Program administered by the USDA.

HB 5113 has been referred to the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Virginia female lawyers, lawmakers remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By Noah Fleischman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is being mourned by the country, and in Virginia, female lawyers and legislators are reflecting on her legacy. Some called her a role model, others called her a trailblazer, but they all admired the impact she left.

Ginsburg died Friday at age 87 from complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Alison McKee, president of the Virginia Bar Association, said Ginsburg was one of the most empowering women in the law profession. The VBA is a membership organization of state attorneys who promote legislative changes.

“She was an extraordinary force in attempts to overcome gender inequality,” McKee said. “Overall, to borrow a phrase from Sheryl Sandberg, she leaned in for all women in our profession and helped to close the gap on gender inequality.”

Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality changed a Virginia college’s admissions process in the 1990s. She wrote the majority opinion in the 1996 case that allowed women to attend the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. VMI was the last male-only college in the United States until the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion that since a 1971 ruling, the Court “has repeatedly recognized” laws incompatible with the equal protection principle and that denied women access “simply because they are women, full citizenship stature-equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.”

Ginsburg was also a longtime advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that seeks to guarantee equal rights for all regardless of sex.The ERA first passed Congress in 1972 but could not collect the three-fourths state support needed to ratify it. In January, Virginia became the final state needed to ratify the amendment, though the 1982 deadline has passed. A congressional bill to eliminate the ratification deadline passed the House in February and is sitting in a Senate committee. Over the years Ginsburg has still vocalized support for the ERA, though in February she saidshe would like “it to start over.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, was a co-patron of the ERA in Virginia.

“I think we’re carrying on her work, carrying on her legacy to make life, liberty and justice for all include all and include women equally,” McClellan said. “We carried on her work with that, very much an inspiration there too.”

Del. Hala Ayala, D-Woodbridge, who was a co-patron on the ERA in the House of Delegates, called Ginsburg “our firewall to protect civil rights, voting rights and everything that we fight for” in a statement Friday night.

“My life’s work for women’s equal justice, including championing the Equal Rights Amendment in the Virginia House of Delegates, was inspired by Justice Ginsburg’s work,” Ayala wrote. “Her determined spirit gave me the motivation to fight everyday for what is right, knowing that we would make our Commonwealth and our country a better place.”

Ginsburg was a pioneer for women in the law profession, becoming the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 after Sandra Day O’Connor.

Margaret Hardy, president of the Virginia Women Attorneys Association, said seeing someone that looked like her in the law profession is “critically important,” and that’s why diversity is important—so everyone has a role model.

“I think that just seeing a woman because in her case, in many instances, she was the woman, not just one of many,” Hardy said. “I think just for anyone seeing someone in a profession that you’re entering who looks just like you is an inspiration.”

Lucia Anna “Pia” Trigiani, former president of the Virginia Bar Association, called Ginsburg a role model for all lawyers, not just women.

“For her to do what she did, she also showed not only women that it could be done, but men,” Trigiani said. “She showed everyone that it could be done.”

McClellan equated Ginsburg to civil rights lawyer and former Justice Thurgood Marshall.

“I think she for women’s rights was what Thurgood Marshall was for civil rights,” McClellan said. “I as a woman lawyer, as a woman lawmaker, stand on her shoulders.”

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