Obama retains battleground state of Virginia

Voters in key swing state brave “terrible lines” and frigid temperatures in order to cast their ballot in US election.

Richmond, Virginia voting precinct
Those in line when polls closed at 7pm in Richmond, Virginia, were still allowed to vote [Al Jazeera/Ayse Alibeyoglu]

Virginia – The freezing cold weather in Virginia failed to dampen voters’ spirits as thousands of people turned out to hand Barack Obama his second US presidential election victory in a row in the key swing state.

Precinct officials at Richmond’s Dominion Place told Al Jazeera voting had been “steady and strong” since the early morning, and as a result “heavy turnout lead to long lines at polling places across the state”.

Voters had began lining up at the precinct on Grace Street and other areas as early as 6:30am (09:00GMT) local time on Tuesday, before closing at 7:00pm (00:00GMT).

Virginia, which has 13 electoral votes, had been considered a toss-up in the election race, with final polls before voting showing the state locked in a dead heat.

There had been long lines in many locations after the polls had already closed.

‘Second chance’

Earlier, Obama supporter Dominique Kaar, an 18-year-old student at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), told Al Jazeera she believed the president deserved “a second chance at making this country right”.

Listen to Al Jazeera’s interview with Van Lynch here

Zoe Murawski, an 18-year-old student at VCU, echoed that statement by saying she voted for Obama “because he deserves a second chance to complete the goals he hasn’t finished seeing through”.

Alicia Hutton, who voted with two children, ages eight months and 10 years, clustered around her outside the precinct, told Al Jazeera her pro-life position was why she voted for Republican challenger Mitt Romney. “I believe in what he believes in,” she said.

Voters cast their ballots using polling machines at 215 precinct in Henrico County, Virginia.

Henrieta Johnson said she had waited in the cold for three and a half hours to exercise her right to vote.

“I thought people had already died for my right to vote, it’s freezing here!” she exclaimed, referring to the freezing cold temperatures that greeted voters across the swing state.

A poll monitor at the precinct told Al Jazeera that at first she feared there was low voter turnout compared to the election of 2008.

“In the morning there were hour long lines around the inside of the building, but I was told that in comparison to 2008 the lines were stretching outside of the buildings in this particular precinct,” she told Al Jazeera.

“At first I thought it was due to low voter turnout, but as it turns out they had replaced paper ballots with electronic machines this year making the process more faster and efficient.”

Van Lynch, 54, who voted in a different precinct told Al Jazeera the lines “were terrible”.

“It was a two-hour wait, that was at 6:30 this morning, and they only had three voting machines. Apparently some of the other places I’ve talked to have more voting machines, I’m not sure if this was voter suppression or just oversight on the people who set it up,” he said.

“Usually in Virginia they are pretty good about elections, although they do need early voting, that would make it much easier for people.”

Voter protections

Leah Paisner, a volunteer poll monitor for Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Al Jazeera that their purpose is to “make sure that all eligible voters that come to the polls won’t be turned away” and that they protect voters “from discrimination and intimidation when they try to cast a ballot”.

Poll monitors served in key precincts where there is a history of, or concern about, voting rights violations
[Al Jazeera/Ayse Alibeyoglu]

It is crucial, Paiser says, that they “exercise their right to vote without any obstructions or obstacles”.

Virginia has recently enacted new voter identification laws effectively tightening the rules on casting a regular ballot.

Previously, a voter could sign an affidavit attesting to his or her identity and cast a regular ballot.

Now, however, a voter must cast a provisional ballot and present an approved form of identification in order for the ballot to be counted.

“When people come to the polling booth they may not be aware of what their rights are, so we want to make sure that by the time they go to submit their ballot they are fully informed and empowered to exercise this right,” Paiser told Al Jazeera.

“Our main goal is to prevent voter discrimination, and protect vulnerable groups from prejudice at the polling booths.

“The new voting law in the commonwealth of Virginia is the more lenient of the new voting law, which are stricter in other states, however it still presents a major hurdle for voters who aren’t aware of the changes.”

Although the new Virginia law expanded the forms of identification that are acceptable at polling stations, the law has drawn criticism from voting rights groups, who said it would suppress voting among minorities and the elderly.

Virginia “offers unsatisfactory protections for voters from wrongful challenges to their right to vote before election day, but better protections against wrongful challenges on election day and good protections for voters from intimidation by partisan poll watchers on election day, inside and outside the polls,” a non-partisan voting rights groups called Common Cause and Demos has said in a report.

New law

The ability for a challenged voter’s registration to be “automatically cancelled unless that voter appears at a hearing is unacceptable,” the group concluded in its report issued in September.

The new law requires a local registrar to send the challenged voter, by mail, the reasons for cancellation, facts upon which the cancellation is based and a time the registrar will hear testimony for or against the right of a challenged voter to remain on the rolls.

The complaint cannot occur earlier than 10 days after mailing the notice, or within 60 days of the general election in November. But the report says a registered voter’s failure to appear and “defend his or her right to be registered” or be cancelled is “highly problematic”.

“Virginia should establish failsafe mechanisms that do not result in automatic cancellation based solely on a registered voter’s failure to appear at a preordained hearing for which they may not have received adequate notice or may legitimately not be able to attend,” the group said.

The report also criticises the state for allowing any voter to challenge another voter at the polls on election day, saying it “leaves the voters of Virginia at the mercy of anyone who may want to show up at the polls and be disruptive”.

Such a challenge must come in writing and is subject to penalties, and the challenged voter can sign a statement attesting to his or her eligibility and cast a regular ballot.

But the study said there needs to be a “stronger evidentiary basis for a challenge,” and that under such a system “states run the risk that challenges will be used as a suppressive tactic for partisan gamesmanship”.

According to Donald Palmer, secretary of the State Board of Elections, the state of Virginia abides by “all federal laws relating to voting, including the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act.

The state of Virginia had voted Republican for 44 years, but in 2008 Obama won by a 6.3 per cent margin of victory, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the Old Dominion since Lyndon B Johnson in 1964.