by Scott Dreyer
For many historical and cultural reasons, America has traditionally been what sociologists call a “high-trust” society. As reported in this report from the Pew Research Center, cultures with high trust (such as Canada and Sweden) usually have low crime and corruption while the reverse (such as South Africa and Peru) is also true.
Unfortunately, polls show Americans’ trust in major institutions has been on a downward slope for the past 15 years or so. Gallup first measured confidence in institutions in 1973 and has done so annually since 1993. A Gallup poll from June 2022 showed significant declines for 11 of the 16 institutions tested and no improvements for any.
Those who expressed “a great deal” of confidence in the three branches of the federal government, newspapers, TV news, big tech, and the criminal justice system were all at 26% or below.
On the issue of voting, most Americans have generally trusted the system, although documented cases of stolen elections exist. One example is the 1948 Democrat primary Senate runoff in Texas. Then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson (D) was initially behind until some mysteriously “uncounted ballots” were found in a ballot box called Box 13. Johnson then won with an 87-vote margin, earning him the nickname “Landslide Lyndon.” Johnson went on to defeat the Republican candidate in November and from the Senate later became John F. Kennedy’s vice president and then president after JFK’s assassination.
Simply put, the president from November 1963 to January 1969, the tumultuous ’60s, seized a major stepping stone on his way to power by stealing an election via fraud.
Many Republicans are concerned about election integrity, especially in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election and the 2022 Arizona gubernatorial election, with many irregularities and aberrations reported. Many Democrats and members of the corporate media — including The Roanoke Times’ columnist Dan Casey — deride such questioners as kooky “election deniers” and claim the mere act of asking questions is an “attack on our democracy.”
However, in recent years many Democrats have also expressed doubts about the integrity of our electoral system.
During the George W. Bush (R) administration, some Democrats were concerned about alleged connections between the Republican Party and Diebold, a major maker of voting machines. Democrats’ fears were largely laid to rest with the 2008 election of Barack Obama (D). However, current Vice President Kamala Harris has publicly claimed the 2016 election was “illegitimate,” and failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton complained “You can run the best campaign, you can even become the nominee, and you can have the election stolen from you.”
Roanoke County, like much of the rest of western Virginia and the American South, has been trending Republican in recent decades. Currently, the county has only one Democrat officeholder, Commissioner of the Revenue Nancy Horn. However, her term ends this year and she is being challenged by Vinton Supervisor Jason Peters (R).
Against that backdrop, some in the county have expressed surprise that the county’s registrar, Anna Cloeter, the person who oversees the voting office and procedures, is the daughter of the former chairwoman of the Roanoke County Democrat Committee, Susan Cloeter.
As explained here, in a story that has otherwise received scant local media attention, it is not illegal for a registrar to be a close relative of a partisan political figure. However, in a heavily Republican county like Roanoke, many residents have expressed surprise at learning of that immediate connection.
On the topic of election integrity and local elections, The Roanoke Star reached out to Ken Srpan, chairman of the three-member Roanoke County Electoral Board. Reportedly, each locality in the Commonwealth has such a three-member board, with a minimum of one Democrat, one Republican, and the third member a supporter of the party of the current governor.
So, in a little-known fact, one aspect of the “spoils system” of a sitting governor is the ability to create a 2-to-1 majority on every electoral board in the state.
Thus, during Gov. Northam’s (D) administration, the county’s electoral board had a 2-to-1 Democrat majority, with Srpan as the lone Republican.
Since Gov. Glenn Youngkin has taken office and with the resignation of one Democrat from the board, a new GOP member has joined, Maurice McBride. Jeff Krasnow is now the lone Democrat on the board. Long-time Roanokers may remember Krasnow’s name from his ubiquitous TV ads of yesteryear when lawyers were first allowed to publicize their firms.
Content from an email exchange between Srpan and The Roanoke Star is below:
The Roanoke Star: Currently, is it true that in Virginia, no signature verification is required to make sure signatures match on absentee ballots? Is there one signature space on the absentee ballot application, and another on the actual ballot the voter mails in? Is there anything else about absentee ballots and how they are counted that you’d like to share with our readers?
Srpan: Signature verification of either the voter’s or the witness’ signature is not required or permitted under Virginia law. There is a space for a signature on the absentee ballot application. There is a space for the voter’s signature on the return envelope containing the marked ballot. The voter does not sign his actual ballot.
There are dates for pre-processing the ballots set by the Virginia Department of Elections. The results of that processing are not known until after 7pm on election day.
TRS: Was Roanoke County Registrar Anna Cloeter new to her position in 2017? When will her four-year appointment come up again for reconsideration?
Srpan: In 2017 Anna Cloeter was new to her position as General Registrar and Director of Elections for Roanoke County.
TRS: Has the Electoral Board made a decision about her reappointment or not? Does it take a majority of the Electoral Board to extend a new 4-year contract? Who actually makes that decision?
Srpan: By unanimous vote of the Roanoke County Electoral Board, Ms. Cloeter has been reappointed to a four-year term ending June 30, 2027.
TRS: It is understood that a few years ago Roanoke County GOP chairman Dan Webb had to go to court to get some kind of compliance from Cloeter. Can you please summarize that event and its context for our readers and explain the outcome?
Srpan: Dan Webb requested a writ of mandamus, which he later asked the court to dismiss, and it was.
[According to legaldictionary.net, “The legal term writ of mandamus refers to an order by a court to a lesser government official to perform an act required by law, which he has refused or neglected to do. This type of court order is a remedy that may be sought if a governmental agency, public authority, or corporation in service of the government, fails or refuses to do its public or statutory duty.”]
Upon Srpan’s admission that Cloeter has already been given a new, four-year term until 2027, the email conversation continued as below.
TRS: What was the date of that vote the Board recently took to extend Cloeter’s contract?
Srpan: May 8, 2023.
TRS: Was that meeting and vote to extend her contract announced to the public in advance? If so, may we please have links to those announcements? Do you know if any other local media covered the story?
Srpan: The position was not publicly listed as open because on the date Ms. Cloeter was reappointed, she was still General Registrar and Director of Elections. Since there was no vacancy there was no reason to invite other candidates. § 24.2-110
A meeting notice was made public as usual. There were no media at the meeting.
This response itself raises several new questions and sounds like a Catch-22. Srpan’s explanation seems to be that the registrar’s position was never listed, because on the date of her contract extension, she was still in that position and thus there was no vacancy and thus no need to advertise the opening.
By that reasoning, being a registrar sounds much like being a Supreme Court Justice, who enjoys a lifetime appointment with government salary and benefits until one retires or dies. Plus, it seems to close the door on Roanoke County ever being able to invite or evaluate other candidates.
Moreover, the response sounds contradictory, stating the position was never listed as open yet there was a public meeting notice given. Although Srpan did not send this link or identify it, Srpan may be alluding to this arcane “2023 Meeting Minutes” page.
That page has a link to this notice that the Electoral Board was to meet on May 8, at 10:00 am, an inconvenient time for people with work hours. This notice is undated so it’s unclear how much lead time the public was given.
Buried deep in the meeting minutes, at item 4 b. i., it does report “Mr. Srpan moved to reappoint our Registrar and Director of Elections, Anna Cloeter, to an additional 4-year term ending June 30, 2027. The motion passed unanimously by a vote of 3-0.”
The minutes report that seven people were present: the three Electoral Board members, Cloeter, and three visitors.
Whether done stealthily in order to avoid attention or if this is simple “operating procedure,” the whole procedure seems to have been done in a very quiet and opaque way.
It also seems to stand in direct contradiction to the bold “Engage!” link at the top of the county’s webpage, urging active citizen input.
TRS: What was the starting salary of Cloeter when she began in June 2017? What is it now? Is registrar salary consistent across the state, set by Richmond? Or do localities set that figure?
Srpan: I don’t know what Ms. Cloeter’s starting salary was in June 2017. In 2019 it was $69,855. Currently it is $109,000. Registrar’s salaries are set by the General Assembly. § 24.2-111. Roanoke County does not provide a supplement to the salary set by the General Assembly.
That is a remarkable pay jump. Between 2019, the last year before Covid and the government lockdowns, and now, two years after Covid, Cloeter’s salary has skyrocketed an amazing 56%. The fact that Covid and the resultant lockdowns forced many businesses to close their doors and many Virginians today are struggling financially makes Cloeter’s nest egg all the more notable.
TRS: How would you allay concerns or questions from County residents who wonder why the registrar is the daughter of a clearly partisan figure, the former Roanoke County Democrat Committee Chairwoman. It is recognized this is not illegal, but some find it questionable.
Srpan: The fact that Ms. Cloeter‘s mother is the former chairman of the Roanoke County Democratic Committee is perfectly legal. So, such connection is a moot point. § 24.2-110. We on the electoral board as well as Ms. Cloeter are sworn to ensure honest and fair elections. And that is what we have done and continue to do in Roanoke County.
Here again, Srpan’s contentions raise new questions and seem to use faulty logic. As stated in the question, no one is questioning the legality of a registrar being the daughter of a partisan political figure. However, some question the appropriateness.
Since English is a crazy language, according to dictionary.com, “moot point” not only has two meanings, but they directly contradict each other. From Srpan’s context, he seems to use the second meaning, “an irrelevant question, a matter of no importance.”
Ironically however, the first meaning seems to apply here: “A debatable question, an issue open to argument.”
It’s common knowledge that many things are not illegal, but may still be questionable, weird or wrong. For example, it would be legal for Hunter Biden to move to Fincastle and run for Botetourt County Board of Supervisors. However, it would be highly odd and would certainly merit discussion and media coverage.
Plus, the Code of Virginia DOES warn against a registrar being too openly partisan, as seen in this text: “No general registrar shall serve as the chairman of a political party or other officer of a state, local or district level political party committee. No general registrar shall serve as a paid or volunteer worker in the campaign of a candidate for nomination or election to an office filled by election in whole or in part by the qualified voters of his jurisdiction.”
TRS: A writ of mandamus is used to force an official to do his or her job. How would you allay the concerns of County residents who wonder, if Cloeter had to face a court order to do her job once before, why was she rewarded with another four-year term? Don’t most people know how to do their jobs without a court order forcing them?
Srpan: 2020 was the first year that no excuse mail-in absentee ballots and the pre-processing of them became law. Previously Roanoke County may have had one hundred or so absentee ballots in a general election. But during a tumultuous presidential election that number of mail-ins swelled to over 14 thousand. In the midst of a pandemic, the move into a new registrar’s building which wasn’t totally ready and an unprecedented number of voters in a new thing called 45 days of early voting, it was a hectic time to say the least. Part of the new requirement of the mail-in ballots was the pre-processing notification of both political parties of the date and time, which Ms. Cloeter unintentionally, simply forgot to do. Trying to keep up with dozens of brand-new election laws was not easy. It was an honest mistake which did not affect the election in any way. That is why the writ was dismissed. Since then, Ms. Cloeter has and continues to notify both parties every election, as well as carry out all her obligatory duties.
For her part, Cloeter has not yet responded to these two questions from The Roanoke Star:
1. Would you please tell us the year you became Roanoke County registrar, and the year(s) of your reappointments?
2. Also, before you were registrar, were you employed in another position in the registrar’s office, or was registrar your first position in that office?
Seeking information for The Roanoke Star reading community, the former Roanoke County GOP Chairman, Dan Webb, was interviewed, since he was the one who requested the writ.
By phone, Webb was eager to speak. He added some context to Srpan’s claim that “Dan Webb requested a writ of mandamus, which he later asked the court to dismiss, and it was.”
Webb explained that, around the time of an election a few years earlier, Cloeter allowed some absentee ballots to be processed and a Democrat was present but no representative from the local GOP. Concerned that no Republican eyes were present at that process, and that Cloeter was not following the law on that point, he went to court to force her to do her job fully as required by law and to ensure transparency.
As for the “he later asked the court to dismiss it” part, Webb elaborated. Since the wheels of justice turn so slowly, the November election was long over and the court still had not taken action two months later. So, in January of the following year, and knowing that no one could redo an election but thinking he had proven his point to Cloeter, he asked the court to remove the writ.
After a few minutes of an informative phone call on June 9, Webb claimed he needed to catch a meeting and indicated he would send more detailed information as well as his press release about the writ situation by email. However, no such further content was ever received and he has not responded by phone or email since.
Not hearing back from Webb, The Roanoke Star reached out to the current Roanoke County Republican Committee Chairwoman, Ashley Suetterlein, who is also the wife of State Sen. David Suetterlein. Even though she was not chairwoman at the time of the writ situation, it was thought she might have some information to share with readers. Also, she was asked if the Electoral Board had 100 percent authority on the decision to extend Cloeter’s contract, or if she or anyone else had any input or influence in that decision.
However, no response has been received from her as of publication time.
The Roanoke Star also reached out to the Office of the Attorney General and the Roanoke County Administration. No response has been received from the AG’s office as of publication time and the Roanoke County Information Officer said Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests require five business days to fulfill.
Clearly, many questions surround the process by which an increasingly Republican-leaning county has a registrar who is the daughter of the former Democrat unit chairwoman, and many people involved in the situation seem unwilling to talk about it.
Ironically, as Virginia’s last day of voting in the primary was June 20, and early voting for the fall elections starts in September, the time to focus on election integrity is now.
Republished with permission from The Roanoke Star.