Partisan Takeover of the Electoral Process?

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

It appears that Republicans in some localities are moving to place the election machinery under partisan control.

Before discussing the basis for this allegation, a little background might be useful.

Each city or county has an electoral board consisting of three members. They serve three-year terms, with the terms staggered so that one term ends on December 30 each year. The members are appointed by the chief circuit judge of the locality, or his designee, from lists provided by the political parties that cast the highest and the next highest number of votes for Governor in the last gubernatorial election. Two members of each board shall be from the party that cast the highest number of votes for Governor in that election. However, no member’s term may be shortened to comply with the party representation requirement. All these provisions are set out in Sec. 24.2-106.

The registrar, the person responsible for the day-to-day administration of the election process, is appointed by the local electoral board for a term of four years, beginning on July 1 of the year of appointment. The statute is worded so that registrars’ terms end mid-way through the second year of a governor’s term. Therefore, all registrars are up for reappointment this year.

Those electoral boards that did not revert to a 2-1 Republican majority in 2022 because the terms of neither of the two Democratic members had expired attained that majority in 2023.

Normally, the registrar is a nonpartisan position. In many cases, registrars remain in office for many years although the partisan make-up of the electoral boards have changed several times. The recent events in Buckingham County may be a harbinger of changes to come.

Based on reports of the local NBC news affiliate (here and here), the electoral system in Buckingham County, a rural county fifty miles west of Richmond, is a mess. Harried by Republicans, the registrar has quit and her whole staff has also resigned. The Democrat on the electoral board has quit. Operating the registrar’s office is now in the hands of two inexperienced electoral board members.

The registrar of Buckingham County, up until a few weeks ago, had been appointed in 2019 upon the retirement of a woman who had been registrar for almost thirty years. The rumors began last fall that the local Republican Party chairwoman wanted to get rid of that registrar. A Republican operative and one Republican aspirant appointee to the electoral board reported that the chairwoman made the firing of the registrar a precondition to her recommendation for appointment to the board. That aspirant withdrew his name from consideration due to that requirement. The Republicans would have two new appointments because the Republican member in 2022 had announced he was stepping down before the end of his term because the party was pressuring electoral board members to be more involved in local Republican politics and he did not want any more time commitments. The other vacancy was that of the Democrat whose term was expiring.

At the first meeting of the electoral board this year, the head of the local Republican Party presented a long list of complaints about the election last year.  Chief among her complaints was that there were not enough Republican poll workers. She also listed a lot of procedural complaints, suggested fraud in a close school board race won by a Democrat, and asked for an audit of some ballots.

At one point during the meeting, a Republican activist confronted the registrar, demanding, “Why do we have all these infractions?” and then declaring, “I am putting you on notice—for treason.”

In addition to voicing her accusations at the electoral board meeting, the chairwoman contacted the Commonwealth’s attorney and the Attorney General’s office with her allegations.

Regarding the primary complaint of not enough Republican election officers (poll workers), state law allows for election officers affiliated with parties, as well as non-affiliated officers. The law requires that the affiliated officers be divided equally among the parties and, “if practicable,” the non-affiliated officers should not constitute more than a third of all the officers. The registrar explained that, in January, neither party had nominated poll workers at the start of the year and the majority of the volunteers identified as unaffiliated. The former registrar said that nearly all her poll workers over the years had identified as unaffiliated.

As for the allegations of fraud, the Commonwealth’s attorney said, “I couldn’t find anything criminal. The former registrar, in my mind, did an excellent job.”  The Virginia Attorney General’s office reported that it had not, and was not, investigating election issues in Buckingham County.

Nevertheless, rumors and allegations spread through the county in letters to the editor, texts, and spats on Facebook. Like school board meetings in other parts of the state, meetings of the Buckingham County electoral board became contentious. Democrats, alarmed at the allegations, began mobilizing and, at the next meeting, had 60 people showing up. After a disagreement at a meeting resulted in the Republican chairwoman lodging an assault charge against another woman, the sheriff started assigning deputies to attend the meetings.

In February, the deputy registrar resigned, saying that the board members had questioned her “reputation, ethics, and integrity.” The registrar resigned in March and the rest of the staff soon followed.

One Republican member of the electoral board was appointed in January; the other was appointed in mid-March. There does not seem to be any local staff, although the state Department of Elections is assisting the members in processing paperwork such as voter registrations. Recently, a member of the county board of supervisors reported that, to his knowledge, the registrar’s office “is open, but not fully operational.”

A former Democratic member of the electoral board is worried. “The next [registrar] will have zero experience. The board won’t have any experience. I would say at least half of the officers of elections are going to quit. Who’s going to work the election?” At least, they will not have any primary elections this summer to worry about.

Buckingham County is not the only locality in which Republicans are moving to replace the registrar. The Republicans on the Lynchburg electoral board ousted, or let it be known they plan to oust, the registrar and deputy registrar. In protest, the Democratic member of the board resigned. According to an official of the Virginia Electoral Board Association, at least six other counties are considering not reappointing their registrars. As reported by NBC, at the annual meeting of that association in late March, “there was so much talk about reappointing or ousting sitting registrars that organizers arranged an impromptu panel discussion on the issue.”

My Soapbox

Election law is complicated. Running elections that go smoothly is not easy. It is essential that all involved are treated fairly and that there is no reason for there to be even a perception that something about an election is amiss. Getting rid of long-serving, experienced registrars just because you are now in the majority and can put your own in charge of the election machinery only exacerbates the divisions and suspicions that abound now.