When Local Registrars Get Caught in the Middle

by Martin Davis and Shaun Kenney

Last week, Cardinal News published a piece by reporter Markus Schmidt about the difficulties facing several Democratic candidates for state and local offices in Virginia, owing to complications with their paperwork.

Mistakes related to paperwork happen every year, and sometimes the Virginia Department of Elections can sort out the problem. Schmidt’s story notes two instances in recent years when this happened. Notably, in 2019, when the department accepted late paperwork for Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, and in 2021, when it placed Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun County, on the ballot despite a missed deadline.

City and county registrars, however, are the people who are on the front lines of most issues relating to candidates’ paperwork issues. And these people are often caught between conflicting interpretations of critical statutes.

In Spotsylvania County, concern over signatures collected by two candidates for local office provides an interesting look into the challenges local registrars face. It also reveals some issues with the way the state is relaying information to candidates and registrars.

Deadlines and Start Times

F2S has become aware that questions were raised about the timing of signatures collected by two Spotsylvania County candidates (Ignacio and Maxwell) to add their names to the ballot. It may not become an issue for them. At issue is whether the candidates were permitted to begin collecting signatures on January 1 or January 2. The state code that sets the date signatures can first be collected would seem to suggest January 2 is the actual date.

The name of any candidate for any office, other than a party nominee, shall not be printed upon any official ballots provided for the election unless he shall file along with his declaration of candidacy a petition therefor, on a form prescribed by the State Board, signed by the number of qualified voters specified in this subsection after January 1 of the year in which the election [emphasis added] is held and listing the residence address of each such voter.

The Virginia Department of Elections’ “How to run for local office” guide strengthens the argument for reading “after January 1” as “January 2.” On page 10 of this guide, reproduced below, the DOE explicitly designates January 2 as the start date.

In our review of Ignacio’s and Maxwell’s Petition of Qualified Voters submissions, which Spotsylvania County Director of Elections and General Registrar Kellie Acors has certified, we found that at least 16 of the 128 signatures Ignacio collected, and 37 of the 144 that Maxwell collected, were dated January 1.

Both Ignacio and Maxwell needed 125 certified signatures in order to appear on the ballot. If those dated January 1 were to be deemed invalid by the Department of Elections, this could leave both candidates short of the 125 threshold. Ignacio would have only 112 registered signatures; Maxwell 107.

Reached by phone, Ignacio said he did not think January 1 was too early and suggested we check with the state. Shortly after hanging up, Ignacio then sent a text message with a screen shot of his Candidate Qualification document, certifying his candidacy had secured the necessary 125 signatures.

When F2S followed up his text message asking how he came to understand January 1 as the date signature collection could begin, when the DOE’s own guidelines specify January 2, Ignacio declined to comment.

“I only talk to credible news sources,” he wrote.

F2S has also reached out to Maxwell the same day we reached out to Ignacio, but he had not responded as of Wednesday evening.

So, is January 2 the operative date? And if so, does that mean signatures dated January 1 are invalid?

A Tale of Two Answers

F2S checked with the state about the correct date for collecting signatures. In a text message exchange on Monday with Andrea Gaines, external affairs manager, Virginia Department of Elections, she told F2S:

That would seem to remove any doubt that January 2 is the correct date.

F2S, however, has learned that Acors had asked the same question about start dates that F2S did, and received a different answer.

Through a FOIA request, F2S learned of an email Acors sent to Alex Nichols in the Virginia Department of Elections on April 20 seeking guidance on this issue. (She did not specify if the question was related to Ignacio’s and Maxwell’s paperwork.)

Good morning, Alex. We had a FOIA on petition signatures for a couple of candidates that we had verified and some of the dates of voters were January 1st. My deputy and I had in our heads that the beginning of the year / the new election cycle was the date we went by. Those signatures that were on the 1st – do I need to disqualify those and recheck for the candidates? Any other repercussions?

Nichols apparently did not respond, as Acors followed up with him the next day via email.

Hey Alex – Just wanted to make sure you received this. TGIF!

When Nichols finally responded on April 21, he did so by phone according to another email she sent to him on June 22 — a full two months after her first inquiry in April:

Hey Alex, I’m not sure you remember this email thread – but you had called me back instead of replying. You said that the date issue in question was immaterial and/or, not to be concerned with. Can you clarify that for me? A candidate is asking again and I wanted to make sure I had it correct.

Shortly after 4 p.m. on that same day, Nichols responded via email.

Candidates can begin collecting petitions on January 1 of the election year, yes. Thanks!

So who’s right?

F2S reached out to Gaines a second time, and asked her to explain why Nichols told Acors January 1, when the department’s own publication said January 2.

She responded:

Virginia code does allow petition signatures to be collected starting January 1, 2023. However, the Department of Elections’ (ELECTs’) candidate bulletin states that signatures can be collected beginning January 2, 2023. The bulletin notes January 2 because January 1 is a holiday, and a candidate would not be able to contact a general registrar on a holiday if needed. In summary, the signatures collected on January 1 are acceptable.

Asked to point to the code that says signatures can be collected January 1, or to provide a quote from someone at DOE confirming her interpretation, Gaines, as of Wednesday evening, had not responded.

F2S asked Acors via email what her understanding of the correct date to receive signatures actually is.

Her answer to us on Tuesday?

Post these inquires, calls and emails, yes — 1/2/year in question not the beginning of that election ‘cycle’ which is the beginning of the year.

And her source for now recognizing January 2 as the proper start date?

Simple Questions, Complex Answers, and Registrars Caught in the Middle

When were candidates allowed to start collecting signatures this year? Representatives in the DOE can’t seem to agree. Nichols in his phone call and later his email to Acors said January 1. Gaines has said both January 1 and January 2. And according to Acors, Matt Abel says January 2.

And that leaves local registrars stuck in the middle.

Charlie Judd, who chaired the Virginia elections board from 2010-2015, expressed his respect for registrars like Acors who are daily on the front lines of these debates. In a call with F2S, he said:

All they have to go on are the guidelines they’re given by the state Board of Elections, and the code…. When they have to make a call, they have to go with what they have in front of them.

And that, as it turns out, is not as easy as reading words on a page.

Shaun Kenney is the editor of The Republican Standard. Martin Davis is the editor of F2S, an online publication dealing with topics related to the Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford region. This article was published on both sites. It is republished here with permission.