After Saturday’s incident in Fairfax, officials discuss steps to protect voters
FAIRFAX-No one should be afraid to cast a ballot. Multiple officials echoed those words this week, responding to Dogwood’s questions about voter intimidation. State and local officials went beyond that, explaining that anyone who harassed voters would be punished.
The questions come after Saturday’s incident at the Fairfax County Government Center. During early voting, a group supporting President Trump showed up, waving Trump/Pence and American flags. That part wasn’t the issue. If you follow the rules, anyone can support their candidate at a polling place. Those handing out material have to be 40 feet away from the facility. If not, they have to be 100 feet away. Also, per the Virginia Code, no one can “conduct himself in a noisy or riotous manner at or about the polls so as to disturb the election or insult or abuse an officer of election.” That’s where the issue came on Saturday. For several hours, the Trump supporters appeared to violate that law, yelling, screaming and chanting at voters as they walked by.
“These acts of voter intimidation are illegal and Virginians deserve to be able to cast their vote without fear,” the Virginia NAACP said in a statement. “ It is imperative that immediate action is taken to ensure all voters feel safe when arriving at their Registrar’s office, satellite location or polling location. Our expectation is the current state law related to voter intimidation will be strictly enforced.”
The group said they expect more situations like this as election season continues. To fix that, they recommended that state and local officials put measures in place to protect voters and election staff.
Officials Won’t Tolerate Intimidation
Both local and state officials say they are working to do just that. Speaking with Dogwood, officials from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s office said he was looking at multiple solutions.
“Given the possibility that this behavior could occur again, Attorney General Herring and his team are exploring all options for protecting voters and polling places,” said Charlotte Gomer, Herring’s public information officer. She added Herring knows voting is a fundamental right and he remains committed to making sure residents can cast their ballot without fear.
“[He] discussed the incident with the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney, who would have primary responsibility for prosecuting any violations of the law,” Gomer said, adding there would be “appropriate accountability for anyone who illegally intimidates or harasses a voter.”
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Desano released a statement hours after the incident, outlining his position.
“I am instructing my office to pursue cases of voter intimidation that may occur,” Descano said. “I sincerely hope all looking to vote do so with care, precaution and dignity. Please be safe and respectful to one another.”
That section of the Virginia Code we referenced earlier makes the penalties for voter intimidation clear. First, on the spot, election officers must ask the person or group to stop what they’re doing. If that doesn’t work, law enforcement can “arrest a person engaging in such conduct and bring him before the officers of the election.” They can “commit him to the county or city jail, as the case may be, for a period not exceeding twenty-four hours.” They would be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor. The US Code goes a step beyond, with fines and up to a year’s imprisonment if convicted.
Fairfax Supervisors Consult with State
So far, Saturday’s incident hasn’t kept voters away. On Monday and Tuesday, voter lines stretched not just out the door, but also across the road. Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe was among those voting early Monday. Current Virginia Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn also cast a ballot, along with Virginia Sen. Dick Saslaw.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors said they want these voters to feel safe when casting a ballot. In a statement released across social media, County Board Chairman Jeff McKay said the group reached out to state officials for help.
“I have consulted with staff from the Office of Elections to ensure moving forward, no one’s right to vote is infringed upon or interfered with and that no groups are intimidating voters,” McKay said. “We will continue to look after all polling locations when our 14 additional satellite early voting locations open on October 14 and at every precinct on Election Day.”
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Email Brian Carlton at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter at @BrianCarltonVA