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Suffolk needs a new early voting site, but leaders can’t decide where it should go

Suffolk City Hall (Photo by Mechelle Hankerson)
Suffolk City Hall (Photo by Mechelle Hankerson)

On Super Tuesday, six different Suffolk voters walked out of the North Suffolk Library with their ballots in hand.

Electoral Board chair James Oaks said the confusion was caused by the noise level and chaotic environment of the polling place.

It’s why, he told Suffolk City Council this week, the library isn’t a suitable early voting location, especially for the November elections.

“This year being that the election is going to be a presidential year, the voter expectations are probably gonna be much larger than normal,” said Councilman Roger Fawcett. 

But given how fast the city is growing, Fawcett said at a council meeting this week there needs to be more sites for residents to cast ballots early.

Suffolk was one of just a handful of Virginia localities to grow more than 4% from 2020-2023. It hit 100,000 residents last year.

In the 2016 presidential election, only around 5,400 Suffolk residents voted absentee or early. In 2020, that number jumped to 30,000. Early voting was extended by law in Virginia during the pandemic.

The electoral board doesn’t disagree. But where Fawcett and Vice Mayor Lue Ward both argue the library is appropriate, Oaks said it’s not.

Polling places have specific state requirements. The building has to be owned or leased by the locality, compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, meet parking minimums and security requirements. 

According to the staff report, the library meets ADA standards but lacks enough parking or security to make it an early voting site..

Oaks also said the eight months between now and the November election aren’t enough time to source extra voting machines or personnel. He told Council the best the Electoral Board can do is find an appropriate site and get everything in place for 2025 elections.

“We don't have a large stockpile of equipment to do this with,” Oaks said.

Council member LeOtis Williams pointed out at Wednesday's meeting that opening one early voting place in north Suffolk could also start a wider conversation and push for more.

“We're going to open Pandora's Box now, because the people in Whaleyville and the southern end, that’s way at the North Carolina line, have to travel downtown 30 minutes,” he said. 

“What about those people? What about the people in Holland? We’re opening a box right now.”

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