By Joe Beck
Christopher Gerrit Johnson found his plans to vote in Tuesday's primary temporarily stymied at the Strasburg Police Department before authorities agreed he had a right to cast his ballot and allowed him to do so.
Johnson's initial trouble in voting at Strasburg High School, his designated polling place, stemmed from a "no trespassing" order banning him from Shenandoah County Public Schools property. The order was issued after an incident in mid-December when Johnson entered Sandy Hook Elementary School with a board bearing the words "high powered rifle."
He walked into the central office where, after speaking with school officials, deputies arrested him and charged him with disorderly conduct. A bench trial in Shenandoah County General District Court is scheduled for Aug. 16.
Strasburg Police Chief Tim Sutherly said Johnson entered the police station about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday asking if he could vote at Strasburg High School, with a police escort if deemed necessary. Sutherly said a part-time officer at the department looked up the "no trespassing" order and denied Johnson permission to go on school property.
A flurry of phone calls ensued among police supervisors, Johnson's lawyer, David Silek, Shenandoah County School Superintendent B. Keith Rowland and Lisa P. McDonald, the county's voter registrar. Sutherly said police then agreed Johnson could go to the high school and vote.
"We had an officer in the area, but we did not escort him, and he left without incident," Sutherly said of Johnson's appearance at the polling place.
Johnson and Silek remained irate at the police afterward in separate interviews.
Silek, who practices in Front Royal and Manassas, said police had "trampled" his client's right to vote before relenting.
"I see no difference between voter intimidation by Strasburg police and anybody else who would attempt to intimidate somebody in exercising the right to vote," Silek said.
Johnson, 33, of Strasburg, said he was taken aback when the officer at the police station told him he couldn't go on school property.
"He said I absolutely could not go on Shenandoah County school property, and I would have to reregister and vote elsewhere," Johnson said of the officer who spoke to him.
Johnson said he saw a police officer on the grounds when he went to vote, but no one interfered with him.
"They didn't arrest me," Johnson said. "I was able to walk in and vote and then I left."
Rowland said the no trespassing order was in effect before Johnson voted and remained in effect after he left the polling place, but the ban was not intended to prevent him from voting.
"He has a constitutional right to be able to vote," Rowland said, adding he did not know who told Johnson he could not do so.
"We were not doing anything to violate to violate his constitutional rights," Rowland said, referring to school system officials.
Silek praised Rowland and McDonald for their roles in clarifying that Johnson had a right to vote.
"Thankfully, Lisa McDonald came to the rescue as did the (school) superintendent," Silek said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org