By Rachel Janfaza, CNN
Gabby Cipollone loves her home state of West Virginia. But the 23-year-old says that isn’t the case for many young West Virginians.
“Our population is fleeing,” Cipollone said, adding that many of her friends and even her sister have left West Virginia — a state that she says has felt the impact of the opioid epidemic and a struggling coal mining industry.
“[My friends] cite a lack of opportunity and a lack of feeling that their opinion, voice or vote matters,” she said.
Still, amid the national conversation on voting rights, the state has become a focus because of Sen. Joe Manchin, whose vote is critical to Democrats’ ability to pass voting rights legislation in Congress. That matters to young people there, Cipollone says, because increasing voter accessibility would help address the various issues plaguing the state.
West Virginia is one of the three US states with a shrinking population, according to US Census data. The state’s population is aging, and more people died than were born in West Virginia between 2010 and 2020. Simultaneously, West Virginia witnessed a higher pace of migration out of the state than it had in prior decades and as a result of its population loss, the state is losing a House seat in 2022.
Manchin in recent weeks has been part of a group of Senate Democrats — including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia — working to craft a revised voting rights bill compromise aimed at continuing their work on the issue after Senate Republicans blocked Democrats’ sweeping voting and elections reform legislation, the so-called For the People Act, from advancing.
As part of Un-PAC West Virginia, the local branch of a national youth-led voting rights advocacy group and political action committee, Cipollone and other Un-PAC organizers have sought to locally raise awareness about the need for federal voting rights reform. Since May, the young organizers have knocked on doors across the state, with a goal of getting West Virginians of all ages to contact Manchin to express their concern.
With voting rights legislation stalled in Congress, Cipollone and other young organizers in West Virginia have ramped up their advocacy efforts, encouraging as many West Virginians as possible to contact their senators to push for the For the People Act.
Manchin has said he wouldn’t rule out supporting a modified version of the bill, and proposed updated legislation that declares Election Day a public holiday, expands early voting to at least 15 consecutive days and bans partisan gerrymandering. But in return for his crucial support, Manchin wants to require ID — or an alternative form of identification such as a utility bill — to vote.
Organizers told CNN they are receptive to Manchin’s proposed changes.
“I think there are good things in what’s being called the Manchin compromise,” said David Crawley, the 27-year-old West Virginia state director for Un-PAC.
“If there is going to be a voter ID system, allow it to be accessible,” Crawley said, adding that all citizens should be able to easily obtain an ID.
“I don’t want [this bill] not to pass. Work on it, improve it. But at the end of the day, pass it,” he said.
Crawley has spent days door knocking in southern West Virginia, an area he described as “left behind” and “dying” in the wake of a formerly booming coal mining industry.
Although the For the People Act was drafted by Democratic members of Congress, Crawley — who has engaged in conversation with Trump supporters — says pieces of the legislation have bipartisan support.
According to Crawley, the majority of people he has spoken to are in favor of voting reforms such as increased early voting options, adding that constituents in West Virginia across the political spectrum are also receptive to getting money out of politics and limiting the influence of lobbyists.
“People have been receptive to the idea of a national standard for elections, as most people realize the system doesn’t ensure that everyone has equal access to the polls,” he said. “This isn’t just people who voted for Democrats, but people who voted for Trump.”
For his part, Chris Deluca, a 20-year-old Republican, said he is organizing with Un-PAC because making voting easier is “necessary” so that more people can participate in the electoral process.
“You see a lot of people who will complain about what’s going on in the country but they don’t vote,” Deluca, a student at West Virginia University, said. “I believe it should be easier because there are so many people that don’t want to.”
According to Deluca, the goal of his organizing is to get both Manchin and Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito to support federal voting rights legislation.
Deluca said he’s also on board with Manchin’s suggestions for the bill, but only if all Americans are able to access identification for free and proposed granting every American citizen a free state issued ID.
“I think as long as we can ensure that all Americans have access to some type of ID for free we should definitely require some ID,” Deluca said.
Beyond Un-Pac West Virginia, organizers with Young West Virginia Forward, a youth-led racial justice organization, have for months worked to send a message to both Manchin and Capito that increasing voter accessibility is something that will benefit the lives of young West Virginians.
Takeiya Smith, the 27-year-old founder of Young West Virginia Forward, identified job infrastructure, support for young entrepreneurs and the criminal justice system as areas in her community that need improvement.
“There are young West Virginians that want to stay here to fight for a better place to call home, but we can’t do that without the ability to vote for the changes we want to see. Our right to vote is how we access the power needed to positively impact our communities,” she said.
“We’ve talked up over 1,000 people asking them to call Senator Manchin or email Senator Manchin. We’re counting on both Manchin and Capito to do the right thing,” said Smith. “No matter where you stand on the political spectrum everyone should have the fair and free right to participate in our democracy.”
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