"People are engaged," says J. Kirk Showalter, general registrar for the city. "With the presidential debate and the mayor-at-large debate, we're already seeing a great stream of interest, more than usual."
Nearly half of Richmond's 200,000 or so residents are registered to vote, Showalter says. But in some previous elections, turnout has been as low as 12 to 15 percent. This year, she says with confidence: "I'm projecting 70 percent."
Presumably Showalter's office will be swamped. That's why she hopes her early-bird advice and a behind-the-scenes snapshot of what's to come will prompt people to consider sooner rather than later their right to vote. Namely, whether they can.
On Tuesday, Nov. 2, each registered voter in Richmond has the chance to cast a ballot for a president, a member of the U.S. House, a City Council member, a School Board member and for the first time in decades a popularly elected mayor. Voters will also make a decision on two proposed amendments to Virginia's Constitution and whether City Council terms should be extended from two years to four. The deadline for registering and updating voter information is Oct. 4.
From now until then, Showalter and her eight full-time staffers expect the number of applications they receive to escalate from several hundred to a thousand or more daily. That's not to mention the surge in phone calls from residents inquiring about their voter status, precinct location and myriad other concerns.
Showalter's office does its best to field the calls, she says, in addition to keeping financial records on all 41 local candidates running for office, and ensuring that all precincts she's waiting for the U.S. Justice Department to approve reducing the number in Richmond from 71 to 66 are ready for business.
But inevitably, procrastinators and misperceptions become the office's biggest challenge.
Take a Style reporter and photographer, for instance. Both question their voter status. Conducting a quick search of her database with the State Board of Elections, Showalter relays the news. The photographer is "inactive," she says, having not yet switched his state of residence after several years from Pennsylvania to Virginia. And for years, the reporter learns, she unwittingly voted illegally using her parents' residence and precinct until she registered correctly last year. This time around, the reporter can return to her old West End precinct where she was properly registered but only because she moved to her new South Side residence after the last election Nov. 4. Still, she'll have to fill out a change-of-address form at the precinct to ensure her information is updated, Showalter says.
Increased local and national interest in this year's election has everyone from civic associations to business owners to Joe citizens pushing for people to vote, often providing voter registration applications.
"People need to be aware they're not sworn assistant registrars," Showalter explains. Not even the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles with its prominent voting displays and posters actually registers voters. It simply takes applications and forwards them to the registrar's office where they must be approved. Once registered, people receive a card showing their voting location and election district.
[You should contact your local registrar if you do not receive this notification. Check with the Virginia State Board of Elections by calling (800) 552-9745; TDD (800) 260-3466 if you have questions about voter registration, the status of your application, or if you do not receive your voter registration card.]
Applications readily available online or "printed on demand" at places such as DMV recently have caused a new problem to crop up, Showalter says: incomplete applications. "Sometimes all they do is sign it," she says, without answering the 11-part questionnaire. The registrar's office sends out a denial notice that costs the city $1 apiece to every individual who submits an incomplete application.
With less than three months to go before "E-day," Deputy Registrar Constance Tyler stands before what works as a kind of giant mechanical Rolodex. It stores all the addresses for registered voters in the city. Tyler's current task is to decipher why a newly issued voter ID card has been returned to her office. Is the address wrong? Was it not forwarded? Did the person move again? Tyler must determine the cause. "We're double-checking everything," she says.
Frustration can mount. "We get people very upset, particularly in presidential elections," if they expect to vote but for some reason can't, Showalter says, adding: "I hate to tell people that."
For now, she's hoping that a 550-plus crew of volunteer election officers, 220 lever booth-voting machines, a slew of posters, pamphlets and advertisements will suffice to make sure November's election proceeds as smoothly as possible.
"This is one of those jobs where ideals are carried out," Showalter says. "Elections are such a bedrock of our country. Of democracy." SFor more information about registering to vote in Virginia, visit www.styleweekly.com.
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