League of Women Voters and NAACP talk about the importance of voting

By Page H. Gifford

            With so much on the line in upcoming elections, both state and local, those who volunteer and help to get voters out and support them with education and information want the community to understand their vote matters in this ever-changing political climate,

Many recall the first time they voted and remember never taking that ability to vote for granted. As chair of the Voter Empowerment Committee of the NAACP, Barbara Cary helps eligible citizens of Virginia to access and exercise their constitutional right to vote in a free, safe, and fair election.

“As a child, I would go to the polls with my grandparents and understood the importance of voting.  As parents, we taught our children the importance of exercising their rights,” said Cary. “People need to get more involved with the process, such as working at the polls, talking to your church members and people in your community to encourage voting. Help people to understand that their vote is their voice.”

Both Cary and Pat Cochran, president of the League of Women Voters for the Charlottesville area, believe that educating voters and rallying interest can potentially be the key to breaking down the barriers and allow people to have a voice in the political system that is supposed to serve them. Cary talked about empowering voters yet cited  “a lack of interest and education, not understanding the importance of their rights, and removing old myths and untruths.”

“I would love to see local media give more coverage to their efforts as a way of reinforcing voter confidence in this time of eerie and unsettling misinformation,” said Cochran.

Cary tells the story of one voter she spoke with while trying to get her to register to vote.

“She finally told me that she was told that she would never be able to vote because she stole an item. That happened 14 years ago. Her rights were probably already restored or paperwork could have been done for restoration, she said. “The steps to help this person were very simple.  A few steps could have been taken on a cell phone, rights restored, and later registered to vote at the next election. This is a big concern of mine that people did something irresponsible at an early age, got into trouble, and do not understand that it may be a simple fix to get their rights restored, to make them feel good about themselves.”

Cochran looks at it from a different angle, making the system easily accessible but like Carey, educating voters about the system and how it works is also crucial.

“I think the biggest obstacle to getting people to vote is getting out the latest information for “how to vote,” said Cochran. “ For instance, during the June primaries, witness signatures were not required for absentee/ mail-in ballots. This November that has changed back to the former rule that mail-in ballots must have a witness signature.”

She added that voters are unsure of what ID they need to have and what district or precinct they live in.

“Getting that kind of information out to citizens is expensive and ever-changing.” She said she hoped that local papers, like the Fluvanna Review, get all the information to voters they need.

Many wonder how to reach voters. Cary says it is making them understand that every vote counts.

“Help people understand that their vote is needed to elect local officials that will affect our everyday life as well as at the state and federal level. Inform people that they can be a positive example leading others to vote,” she said. “We have assisted people to vote and  have seen a few of them go to the polls with their chests all poked out like they were on a mission and come back outside from voting and see nothing but big proud smiles. That’s truly a great feeling for that person voting and for the person that assisted. That gives you the  motivation to help even more.”

Cochran thinks information along with motivation makes a strong alliance and has been the mission of the League of Women Voters for the last 100 years.

“We have voter registration drives, print voter education pamphlets, host candidate forums, study current issues of concern in our local communities with a keen effort at sorting fact from myth or fiction.  Getting 18-year-olds to start voting leads to an increased occurrence of voting over the long term,” she said.

One of the concerns of many voters has been gerrymandering and Fluvanna is in the process of redrawing its district lines. Cary views gerrymandering as having a negative impact on communities of color.

“It eliminates voting for candidates of your choice or representation to fight for your concerns,” she said.

     The LWV strongly supports the bipartisan transparent public process of creating new district lines every ten years.

“Once gerrymandering is eliminated, impacts will be felt. I also believe that the elimination of gerrymandering will reinforce voter confidence in the electoral process and encourage more voting,” said Cochran.

      Virginia does not have the negative political environment that other states are experiencing, surrounding voting. Cary believes that encouraging voters to “stand up and speak out for what is right,” will continue to influence future elections in Virginia.

“This coming week members of our LWV will be giving testimony at the Virginia Redistricting Commission hearings specifically about our central Virginia area,” said Cochran.  “The recent extension of both in-person and mail-in ballots is real progress in making it easier to vote for all of our citizens.  Voter ID requirements are easier to manage.  Automatic voter registration at the DMV is terrific.”

She also added that our Board of Election officials undertake very vigorous precautions and adhere to strict standards to ensure a fair election outcome.

To give more choices and a collective voice to voters, Cochran would like to see the model of ranked-choice voting adopted in all elections where there are more than two candidates. Redistricting for fairness and making progress through change for the future, including ranked-choice voting, are ways that Cary and Cochran hope will empower voters and give them the tools they need to have their voices heard.

   Cochran encourages voters to visit https://www.vote411.org/voter guide from the LWV for voting information.

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