Civic groups orchestrate non-partisan voter education

Virtual events prove successful for 50 Ways and Rockbridge Justice Coalition

Shauna Muckle

Two civic organizations in Rockbridge County are working to educate voters about who’s on the ballot and voting procedures this election.

On Sept. 8, 50 Ways Rockbridge and Rockbridge Justice Coalition teamed up to host the virtual Lexington City Council debate, the only local debate of its kind so far in the run-up to the November election.

Chris Gavaler, Washington and Lee English professor and founding member of 50 Ways Rockbridge said the event was successful.

“We were just trying to get information out to all the voters,” Galaver said. “We hosted it on our Facebook page, and gave each candidate equal time. Each candidate got the same questions. It was a very successful evening. A good number of people attended.”

The organization, launched in December 2016, was initially as a response to President Donald Trump’s election, he said. Since its inception, the organization has expanded to over 100 informal members, who advocate for various social justice causes including racial justice, immigration, anti-gerrymandering and encouraging voter turnout.

Rockbridge Justice Coalition began later, in June 2020, as a response to this summer’s outcry for racial justice.

At its helm are a group of collegaged Lexington residents, like Ely Spencer and Oishani Sen-Basuchoudhary. Both grew up in Lexington, and they say their organization primarily focuses on combatting racist struc- tures in the Rockbridge area specifically.

Spencer said that hosting the debate allowed RJC to define the candidates’ stances on issues pertinent to their organization, like Confederate symbols and race education in local schools.

“It was meaningful to hear our elected officials talk about racial justice issues as they pertain to Lexington specifically,” Spencer said. “Those questions may not have been brought up in other years.”

RJC has recently engaged with the Lexington City Council on reforming local Confederate symbols, including the renaming of the local hospital, cemetery and street names. They have also focused on educating Rockbridge County residents on local issues and candidates amidst an abnormal election year, a cause that prompted collaboration with 50 Ways Rockbridge.

50 Ways has organized a swath of voter turnout efforts prior to the November elec- tion. Gavaler said that the efforts are intended to be nonpartisan, though the organization has conducted separate events on behalf of Joe Biden.

Volunteers for 50 Ways have sent out hundreds of postcards that inform voters on dates and deadlines for voter registration and ways to vote. In Virginia, voters must register by Oct. 13 and they must request absentee ballots by Oct. 23. Mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and in-person ballots must be returned to the county registrar by 7 pm on Nov. 3.

“Currently we’re saying you have three ways to vote and you can pick whichever you like most,” Gavaler said. “You can vote early in person, via mail with an absentee ballot, or you can just wait until November 3rd and vote the way you’ve always done it.”

Alongside postcards, 50 Ways has used other means to access voters who may not be responsive to mail notices.

The organization recently sponsored a showing of “Selma,” a movie chronicling the historic civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, at Hull’s Drive-In. They used advertising space on the screen to advertise voting dates and deadlines. They are also reaching out to residents via phone call. Since in-person voting in Rockbridge County began in mid-September, Gavaler said that eyewitnesses have reported high turnout, which 50 Ways considers a success irrespective of the partisan affiliation of who’s voting.

“If you go to City Hall during voting hours, dozens and dozens are going every day,” Gavaler said. “The word is out, we’ve had great success and we’ll continue to spend the word.”

Like 50 Ways, RJC has also prioritized non-partisan voter education efforts this election cycle, albeit with a more local focus.

Originally, some members of the organization supported Amber Poole’s campaign for Lexington City Council, Spencer and Sen-Basuchoudhary said. But since Poole dropped out of the race and the three available council seats became uncontested, they’ve pivoted to clarifying candidates’ stances on the issues.

“The focus we have now is not really on endorsing anybody,” Sen-Basuchoudhary said. “Right now, we just want to have conversations with people. The symbols in public spaces that city council has jurisdiction over, we really would like city council to take a stand on those.”

RJC has used social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to post infographics informing their followers on racial justice issues. Beyond dismantling local confederate namesakes and symbols, they said they want to see wholesale changes to race education in local schools.

“[Lexington public schools] didn’t tell us about a lot of the terrible things that happened and the ways that people of color suffered and persevered,” Sen-Basuchoudhary said.

50 Ways, like Rockbridge Justice Coalition, is championing other policy-oriented goals this election cycle. Amendment 1 is on Virginia ballots, which allows voters to decide on amending Virginia’s constitution to end partisan gerrymandering. The measure, if passed, would shift control of Virginia’s redistricting each decade from the party that controls the state legislature to a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

Galaver, who chairs the Anti-Gerrymandering Committee for 50 Ways, said that the organization is hosting virtual educational events and engaging voters with phone bank- ing and informative flyers in favor of the ballot measure.

Both groups said that the shift to virtual events has surprisingly bolstered their activism and civic engagement efforts. Gavaler said that the virtual nature of the city council debate allowed more people to engage than usual.

“When you have an online event, you can attract more people because you don’t have to get in a car, you don’t have to drive,” Gavaler said. “You click on a link and you’re good to go. You can even take little breaks.”

Sen-Basuchoudhary and Spencer both attend college out of state. They said that being able to contact city council and Lexington voters virtually has allowed them to remain in touch with local politics even as they’re not physically present.

“Right now I’m in Connecticut, but I lived in Lexington the first 17 years of my life,” Sen-Basuchoudhary said. “It’s my home, and the things that happen there are very important to me.”