Four weeks ago, I went to the DMV to get a Virginia license and register to vote. I brought my old Washington, DC license, a bill to prove Virginia residency, and my passport. I filled out a voter registration form and gave it and all my documentation to the woman behind the counter. She reviewed all my forms, did a lot of typing, handed me a few forms to sign and gave me a notification that I would receive a decision by the Stafford County Voter Registrar if I was eligible to vote.
Two weeks later, I received a letter from the Stafford County Voter Registration Office. I was excited to be registered in Virginia. I grew up in Chicago, IL and spent the last five years in Washington, DC. I had never voted in a swing state before. My vote was going to count and I was going to take a picture of my voter registration card and post it on Facebook!
Except that my application was rejected. The letter from the Registrar claimed that I had not proved my citizenship. That was confusing since I had given the woman at DMV my passport. The letter said that I could challenge the ruling in court. That seemed ridiculous so I decided to head down to the Voter Registration Office. I brought the letter and my passport.
The woman at the front desk would be defined as standoffish by most. It wasn’t just me. Two other people came in asking where they could vote early and she answered their questions with the warmth of a polar bear.
I explained my situation and she told me the registration had passed and I could fill out a form for the next election. I told her again I had brought my passport so I did not understand how I failed to prove citizenship. She then told me I probably did not check the “Yes” box on the “Are you a citizen of the U.S.?” question. I remarked that I found that hard to believe but if I saw proof, I would believe her.
She went to go pull my physical registration form from this enormous filing cabinet – I was impressed that all Stafford County registered voters had a physical card right there… then though, “What if there is a fire?” or “What if some were ‘accidentally’ misfiled?” I hoped that they had at least scanned each of them so there was also an electronic copy.
She could not find my card and my suspicion grow. She went back to the man sitting in the office and told me he would like to talk to me. His name was Greg S. Riddlemoser, the general registrar of Stafford County. He had a pilots helmet on the top of his bookshelf that said “Riddler.” I asked him where the large class ring he was wearing was from. He remarked that he had a special one made. One side was for the National Guard and the other for the Air Force.
I explained my story and he was sympathetic. He told me how the DMV screwed up a lot of voter registrations and even showed me a filing cabinet full voter registration forms he had received over the last three months. I remarked that it was a good thing so many people wanted to vote. He remarked that it created a lot of work.
The woman from the front desk came in with my form. Sure enough, the “yes” box was not checked and he explained that is why I was rejected. I asked to see the form. I saw that the box was not checked and that my signature was at the bottom. But I was confused since most of the form was a computer print out and only my phone number and signature were handwritten. I pointed this out to Mr. Riddlemoser and asked for the handwritten form I had given to the woman at the DMV. I wanted to see if I had checked that box and she made a data entry error. He said he would call DMV, get that form and call me back in two days.
I was sitting down for breakfast at Tryst in Washington, DC (best coffee house in the district) the next morning and Mr. Riddlemoser called me. He said, “Sorry, there is nothing I can do. You can still vote in DC.” I asked, “Did you get my original form from DMV, did I not check the box?” He replied, “I can only work off the forms I have.” I curtly thanked him and hung up, feeling like he was not going to do anything more.
I called my mom. Not only was she a huge political junky and I knew this story would fire her up, but she was also working with the Obama campaign on voter suppression. We talked about what had happened and she told me to take this to the judge, talk to the local Obama campaign office and that she would talk to the head lawyer fighting voter suppression at the Obama campaign. The one question I wanted answered was if I could be denied registration for not checking a “Yes” box on whether or not I was a U.S. citizen.
It turns out the answer is yes. You have to be a U.S. citizen to vote, I know that. However, you do not have to prove citizenship in the state of Virginia to vote. If you vote as a non-citizen, you incur the full wrath of the U.S. legal system. The two things that annoy me the most are 1) I handed my passport to the person behind the DMV desk when I was registering to vote. She then took my form and entered it into the computer. She either forgot to check the “yes” box or decided not to tell me I had not checked it when she was inputting the data. And 2) I brought my passport to the Registrar’s office and not once did he say that since I had proven my citizenship to them and that he could not prove how this issue arose that he would take care of it.
I will also mention that two comments were continually made throughout the conversation with the registrar. First is that I could still vote in DC since I was registered there. Second was that in all his time as Registrar, the judge “had never overturned one of these.” Both seem to be innocuous statements, but both are actually forms of suppression and border on illegal. It is irrelevant that I am registered in DC and that is not a remedy to my situation since my local representatives are in Fredericksburg, VA. And a public official making comments about how the judge will rule is a way to encourage me not to bring it to court. That is intimidation.
And sorry, but I am a white, upper middle class man. There is no more privileged class of people on the planet. If this happened to me, how many others has it happened to? Voter suppression hits minorities and low-income citizens the hardest. Conspiracy? I have no idea, but denying Americans the right to vote out of fear non-Americans will vote is not the American way.
So I need you to vote today, especially if you live in Virginia, and especially if you live in Fredericksburg, VA. I can’t vote but you can. I don’t care who you vote for. The more people that vote, the more we know that “We the People” are in charge of this country.
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