Boots on the Ground: Through the Eyes of Election Officials
On August 28, James Davenport and Maritza Zermeno arrived at Rising Hope Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia to spend the afternoon registering voters and spreading information about Virginia’s voter ID laws. Davenport and Zermeno are organizers with New Virginia Majority, a Virginia-based group that specializes in creating social change through mass organizing and campaigning. Seven days a week, every week, Davenport and Zermeno transport voter registration forms and informational material to Fairfax County churches and DMVs.
This is their first year working with New Virginia Majority specifically to register voters. During their past work with the organization, they have gone into communities and made phone calls to spread information.
Both Davenport and Zermeno have worked at the polls, something they say gives them a unique perspective on the laws that affect voters.
“The number one problem we’ve seen as election officers is the registration process,” Zermeno said. She added that people also get turned away for incomplete registration forms.
“The part that says ‘are you a citizen of the United States?’ was covered by a clipboard for a lot of people when they registered, so they accidentally left it blank and their form was not accepted. We make sure to help everyone fill out all the information correctly when we meet them,” Zermeno said.
Multiple states across the country have changed their voter ID laws in the past few years. In 2013, Virginia legislators passed a law requiring the voters bring a photo ID in order to vote. On the registration table, Davenport and Zermeno set up flyers and brochures that instruct voters on Virginia’s required forms of identification.
“I’ve seen a lot of people only vote in the presidential elections, so a lot of people don’t know you need a photo ID this presidential election because the law changed [since the previous one],” Zermeno said.
In Virginia and several states across the country, supporters of strict voter ID laws believe requiring voters to bring a photo ID to the polls prevents fraud, including undocumented immigrants posing as American citizens in order to vote.
“People that say ‘a lot of undocumented immigrants vote,’ I don’t think they realize the form says if you lie about being a citizen it is a felony,” Zermeno said. “The last thing someone here illegally wants to do is commit a felony through voter fraud. Their name and address is right on the form.”
Zermeno was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States with four children. After eight years, she became a citizen.
“This is someone who takes their citizenship very seriously. When she became a citizen, they had a table after the ceremony for new citizens to register to vote,” Davenport said. “About 2500 people became citizens that same day, and only ten stopped to register. Maritza kept seeing people walk by and she asked why they weren’t registering. They said ‘I don’t want the government to know anything else about me.’”
It is impossible for fraud to happen at the polls according to Zermeno, who recently became an Officer of Elections in Fairfax County.
“People agree we need a picture ID to vote because they don’t want fraud, but I think people that worry about fraud haven’t been an Officer of Elections,” she said. “Everyone is trained. We can only issue ballots to people who are registered in that area and there are a limited number of ballots that have to match with the amount of people who walk in. If someone makes a mistake on their ballot, we void the old one. Everything is documented.”
Davenport and Zermeno arrive at the polling place around 5 a.m. and, depending on the election, they won’t leave until 9 or 10 p.m. to ensure every ballot is properly accounted for. They both had to turn voters away that day for not having the correct photo ID.
“The people affected by voter ID laws are people who are too old to drive and therefore do not have a license,” Davenport said. “Or it’s people who can’t afford a car so they don’t have a license. From this area, the Fairfax Courthouse is 25 miles away and about four buses from this church. So that’s about two hours in each direction. If you’re someone who has two jobs, you don’t have the time or the money to spend trying to get a photo ID. The legislators making these laws have cars. They have IDs, so it’s easy for them to say it’s easy to get an ID.”