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After Buckingham, more Virginia registrars find themselves on chopping block


After Buckingham, more Virginia registrars find themselves on chopping block

Jun 05, 2023 | 12:03 am ET
By Graham Moomaw
After Buckingham, more Virginia registrars find themselves on chopping block
(From left) Nottoway Electoral Board members April Wright, Tom Reynolds and Sarah Allen presided over an at-times heated June 1 meeting about the registrar position. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

BURKEVILLE – In a sweltering community meeting room, William H. Clarke told his fellow Nottoway County residents calling people racist is a “dangerous thing” that shouldn’t be done lightly. But some of the pushback to Nottoway’s first Black registrar, he said, seems racist.

“If you get rid of this man, get rid of him on facts,” Clarke said, referring to Nottoway Registrar Rodney Reynolds, whose appointment as the rural county’s top election official isn’t being automatically renewed by the newly Republican controlled Nottoway Electoral Board.

Another speaker, Sue Yeatts, said she was concerned about errors with voter registration cards recently sent out to Nottoway residents and “rudeness” she said she’s seen from Reynolds. The ability to do the job well, she said, should be all that matters.

“I’m tired of the race card,” Yeatts said. “I’m done with it. I don’t want to hear it anymore.”

The Nottoway Electoral Board announced at a meeting Thursday night it would soon be interviewing five candidates for the job at an “undisclosed location,” but much of its discussion of the registrar job occurred during an hourlong closed session. After the meeting, held in a former elementary school building with noticeably broken air conditioning, board members wouldn’t specify if Reynolds would be one of the interviewees. But there was no vote or announcement indicating an official decision had been made to remove him from consideration entirely.

Nottoway, a rural Southside county of roughly 15,500 people about 60 miles southwest of Richmond, is the latest Virginia locality having a heated debate about who should run its elections. The recent turmoil in Buckingham County — where the entire election staff quit and a Republican-allied registrar hired to keep things running was fired after less than a month in the job — has been a cautionary tale for other electoral boards considering similar staff overhauls. Nevertheless, comparisons to Buckingham didn’t deter the Lynchburg Electoral Board from hiring a new registrar last week, according to reporting by Cardinal News, after what a former Democratic board member called a “coordinated attack” against the former registrar who had held the job since 2018.

[Read more: Buckingham Electoral Board fires Republican registrar after less than a month in the job]

The increase in battles over local election administration is driven by several factors. After years in the minority, Republicans recently became entitled to majority control of all 133 of Virginia’s local electoral boards, a legally required result of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory in 2021. That’s happening just as registrars’ four-year terms are expiring this summer, an opportunity for the reshaped boards to decide to keep their existing registrar or bring in someone new. Many of the local Republican activists who play a role in nominating people to serve on electoral boards have also grown increasingly distrustful of and antagonistic toward election administrators, a trend partly fueled by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that rampant voter fraud cost him the 2020 election.

Though Republicans feel they are simply exercising the power state law grants them to oversee local election offices, some in the elections community are concerned departures of experienced registrars could bring more chaos to election offices that are supposed to function more like bland bureaucracies than partisan battlegrounds.

Republican electoral board members thinking of initiating a change in their local registrar’s office recently got legal guidance on how they can and can’t achieve that goal. In a May 15 advisory opinion, Attorney General Jason Miyares said electoral boards have no legal obligation to reappoint incumbent registrars, but they cannot refuse to reappoint a registrar for political reasons alone. However, the line between the political and nonpolitical is often blurry, and Miyares noted the legality of registrar changes ultimately comes down to the facts of each case.

It remains to be seen whether Nottoway will also oust its registrar, but the issue is already stirring up the same type of division seen elsewhere.

Near the end of Thursday’s Nottoway Electoral Board meeting, board Chairman Tom Reynolds, a Republican, pointed to an anonymous quote from a county resident published in a local newspaper warning there was “going to be trouble” if Rodney Reynolds didn’t keep his job as registrar.

“I took that as a threat. And I will not be intimidated,” said Tom Reynolds, who is not related to Rodney Reynolds.

Board member Sarah Allen, now the panel’s lone Democrat, chimed in with her own anecdote about seemingly threatening behavior.

“No more white pickup trucks coming down my driveway please,” she said.

Rodney Reynolds stayed out of the public debate over whether he was worth keeping, entering the meeting room only temporarily to give the board a few updates on election-related business. After the meeting, he said he wasn’t sure whether he would be one of the five people interviewing for his job, which he would like to keep.

“I know this job,” he said.

Though the trend of registrars fighting for their jobs is largely being driven by a partisan shift this year from Democratic to Republican control of local electoral boards, the facts of each situation differ. In Nottoway, the Electoral Board is not looking to replace a longtime registrar. Reynolds was hired in 2021 when the Democratic-led Electoral Board chose to replace former registrar Angela Stewart, who had held the job for almost three decades. That vote was bipartisan, but local Republicans contend the Nottoway situation is about rectifying a situation caused by Democratic officials’ past disregard for the norms of election administration. 

The controversy in Nottoway predates Republicans taking a majority on the board earlier this year. A special prosecutor was called in last year to look into various allegations of wrongdoing by the board and election office, and the county’s former registrar has filed a federal lawsuit claiming she was wrongfully fired.

[Read more: Special prosecutor trying to sort out elections drama in Nottoway County]

When the board was under Democratic control, former state elections Commissioner Chris Piper sent Nottoway officials a letter ordering board members to be re-trained on the duties of the office and the Freedom of Information Act due to the high volume of complaints the state was receiving about the way the election office and board meetings were being run. During the midterm elections last year, a judge rejected an attempt to keep some Nottoway polling places open after the normal closing time after concerns were raised that not all candidates had been notified of the move.

On Thursday, Nottoway County Democratic Committee Chairman Thomas Crews reminded the board the decision to hire Rodney Reynolds was bipartisan. The upcoming personnel decision, he said, should be similarly bipartisan in order for Nottoway residents to have confidence Republicans aren’t orchestrating a “hostile takeover” of the election office.

“We do not want to see Nottoway County turned into Buckingham, but that is the dangerous road down which we could end up traveling,” Crews said.

Diana-Lynn Wilkins-Mitchell, a Nottoway resident who has repeatedly asked the state to intervene in the county’s elections drama, pointed to the recent attorney general opinion to assure the Electoral Board it has every right to make a change if it feels hiring a new registrar is in the best interest of the county.

“Somehow in all of the things going on, we have lost sight of one important fact,” Wilkins-Mitchell said. “Which is that the code of Virginia dictates how we move forward in everything we do.”

Under Virginia law, registrars are appointed to four-year terms on a timeline that puts them up for reappointment by July 1 of this year. The law says registrars “shall continue in office until a successor is appointed and qualifies.”

The recent opinion from Miyares, issued in response to a request from Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, said the law shouldn’t be interpreted to mean registrars are entitled to a “lifetime appointment” when the General Assembly clearly envisioned four-year terms.

“The board may replace the registrar for a wide variety of reasons, including for example, underperformance, availability of a better candidate, or any other permitted reason,” Miyares wrote. “A board, however, may not refuse to reappoint an incumbent based on prohibited grounds such as race or other legally protected status or political affiliation.”

Any local process of hiring a new registrar, Miyares said, “must be objective and apolitical.”

Last week, Buckingham moved a step toward normalcy when a local judge made an appointment to fill an empty Republican seat on the Buckingham Electoral Board. The local GOP previously nominated just-fired registrar Luis Gutierrez for the seat, but withdrew his nomination after the move was reported by the Virginia Mercury and set for a public court hearing.

As of June 1, the new Republican member of the Buckingham Electoral Board is Sandy Banks-Bertwell, a real estate agent who previously served on the board but had quit in April. In a nomination letter to the judge, Buckingham County Republican Committee Chairwoman Ramona Christian said Banks-Bertwell had resolved “out of state work issues” and could return to the board.

“The intense persecution from Jordan Miles left her little time to pursue her career as a real estate agent in Virginia and South Carolina,” Christian wrote, referring to Democratic Buckingham Supervisor Jordan Miles. “Sandy believes she is now in a better position to handle the pressures of the electoral board and her career.”

Asked for a response to the “persecution” claim, Miles said he’s had virtually no interaction with Banks-Bertwell outside of public records requests and speaking at formal board meetings. The board should get to work “hiring a competent, permanent registrar,” he said, instead of “peddling fairy tales.”