CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Leaders of several West Virginia grassroots organizations and advocates gathered on Tuesday for a round table discussion on voting rights as all parties involved continued to push lawmakers to take up the For The People Act.
West Virginians for Democracy, a coalition of West Virginia based organizations, hosted the round table at the 84 Agency in Charleston. Representatives of small businesses, students, veterans, and incarcerated persons, were all involved in the discussions on voting rights.
“We are all connected with the work that we do but I think it was a grounding experience to kind of regroup as a unit around why we are doing this. And why this is so important to the communities we serve,” Takeiya Smith, the Organizing Director of Young West Virginia told MetroNews following the meeting.
Smith’s organization leads a group of young residents who go into the community numerous times a week and connect with others like them to stand up for democracy. She said her group also works in low-income populations, which are the communities that move around a lot, making it harder to vote.
Smith said that the For the People Act, HR 1, has many election reform measures that will not only help the population she works with but all West Virginians.
“We need same-day registration, we need automatic registration, we need to modernize our voting systems, we need to restore the rights of people with felony convictions to vote,” she said.
On June 22, Republicans in the U.S. Senate successfully blocked a motion to advance the sweeping elections bill. The Senate voted 50-50 to open debate on the For the People Act, in which 60 senators had to support moving forward with the bill, MetroNews reported.
The split down the aisle comes as Republicans criticized HR 1 as giving the federal government too much control in elections and infringing on the states’ authority. The measure, long supported by the Democrats, would have addressed issues such as campaign financing and gerrymandering, as well as increased voter options and access.
Smith believes that most West Virginians want the For the People Act to become law.
“We go out and we talk to people. Once they understand how important this bill is to protect our democracy, they are very supportive of it. Because they want access to have their voices heard through their vote just like anyone else,” she said.
Leo Cevallos, an organizer with UN-PAC and a college student from Charleston who spoke during the round table, agreed with Smith. He said the act brings positive change to absentee ballots.
He told a story about his friend in college who did not know about access to absentee voting and it forced her to miss a day of classes and work to go and drive to West Virginia to vote. Cevallos wants voting that is accessible to West Virginian residents, even if they are living out of state like many college students.
“Call your senators and tell them that you want voting rights, tell them that you want the dark money out of politics. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here with HR 1,” he told MetroNews.
Cevallos also expressed that changing campaign financing in the measure would give more voice to students voting. He believes that politicians do not take the time to listen or visit campuses because students cannot afford to contribute to a campaign.
“People are not reaching out to engage with us to allow us to enter the system. People do not target us for the get out to vote campaigns,” he said.
Samuel Hickman was the moderator for the round table which included Smith, Cevallos, Dijon Stokes, an Advocacy Specialist for ACLU WV, Bill Kuhn, a Huntington resident and veteran, Chelsea Hornyak the Director of Accounts for 84 Agency, and Greg Whittington, the Criminal Law Reform Campaign Director for ACLU WV.
The group said U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito were invited to attend or send representatives but neither did.
Also on Tuesday, West Virginia House Delegates Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha), Cody Thompson (D-Randolph), Kayla Young (D-Kanawha), and Barbara Fleischauer (D-Monongalia) were in Washington D.C. calling on the U.S. Senate to put recess on hold until they pass the For the People Act.
The delegates joined members of Congress, the Declaration for American Democracy Coalition and more than 100 other legislators from states across the country.
Pushkin said the constitutional republic can only exist if the country keeps elections free and fair.
“Nobody outside of Republican leadership favors partisan gerrymandering. And nobody outside of Republican leadership thinks there is not enough dark money in politics,” he said.