Buckingham County Electoral Board won’t renew registrar’s contract
Published 1:21 am Tuesday, March 14, 2023
BUCKINGHAM – Lindsey Taylor’s contract will not be renewed when it ends in June. The Buckingham County Director of Elections and General Registrar learned that on Friday, March 10, during an emergency meeting of the Buckingham County Electoral Board. Coming out of closed session, the group announced their decision to a packed house, including Taylor, at the Buckingham County Agricultural Building.
“(Lindsey’s) contract will unfortunately be expiring on June 30 of this year and it’s the majority of this board’s consensus that we will not reappoint at this time,” Electoral Board Chair Gail Braxton told the crowd. “We will try to send out bids for advertisement and Miss Taylor will have the option to reapply if she desires.”
In Virginia, state law requires registrars to serve four-year terms. You can find that in Section 24.2-110 of the Virginia Code. At the end of that term, the city or county’s electoral board decides whether to reappoint the person or let them go. But in Buckingham, change in the registrar’s position isn’t something people have had to deal with over the last three decades. Taylor’s predecessor, Margaret Thomas, served seven terms, adding up to more than 28 years, before retiring in 2019.
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In this case, the electoral board voted 2-1, with Braxton opposing, to not reappoint Taylor when her contract is up in June. They did not give a reason for the decision. Braxton, however, explained her support for Taylor.
“Out of the four years she’s been doing this job, I personally think she’s been doing a wonderful job,” Braxton said. “I hate the fact her reappointment is not coming back up. Based on prior boards, we’ve done evaluations according to what the state sends out and we reappointed for another four year contract based on those evaluations.”
Buckingham County Electoral Board taking applications
Instead of a reappointment, the board agreed to put the position up and see who applies.
“What we’re going to do is put out bids under three different avenues,” said Electoral Board member Dr. Karen Cerwinski. “People will be interviewed and (Lindsey) can be re-interviewed because that’s how a contract works.”
Cerwinski was in her first board meeting, replacing previous Electoral Board Vice Chair Andrew Marchetti, who resigned earlier this month. That was part of what triggered the emergency meeting, in addition to personnel discussions, a need to fill Marchetti’s seat.
‘We are afraid’
The registrar decision wasn’t a popular one with many of those who came to Friday’s meeting. They came with complaints, and the public comment period got heated at times, as residents voiced support for Lindsey Taylor. Beyond wanting to keep the same registrar in place, people grew angry over changes made and some proposed for election staff.
“I think the problem is, we see on TV so many awful things that are happening in other states and we are afraid,” said Buckingham resident Marie Flowers. “We do not want to take the vote away from anybody and (the electoral board) gives us the impression that (they) just want certain people to be able to vote and vote (their) way. It disturbs me.”
As she looked around the room, Flowers pointed out she’s known almost everyone there, Republican and Democrat, for many years.
“We are not enemies,” Flowers said. “It has to do with the issues in our entire country. We do not want to have those problems here. We want to be neighbors.”
Over the first four meetings of this year, the public comment period for the electoral board has changed three times. It’s things like this, residents said, that makes it seem that someone is trying to restrict their voice. Board members, on the other hand, argue that they’ve been trying to find the right policy that’s a good fit. Previous boards didn’t have a policy and they wanted to change that.
That was one reason people complained at the meeting. The second involved the questions over election officers.
Looking at election officers
Local residents, and some longtime electoral volunteers, have taken offense over the last few months as the Buckingham Republican Party raised questions about procedure. During the two January meetings of the Electoral Board, the Republican Party outlined several areas where they felt state law was not being followed.
Section 24.2-115 of the Virginia Code says that “in appointing the officers of election, representation shall be given to each of the two political parties having the highest and next highest number of votes in the Commonwealth for Governor at the last preceding gubernatorial election.” That part’s simple enough. Let’s keep going. “The officer designated as the assistant for a precinct, whenever practicable, shall not represent the same political party as the chief officer for the precinct.”
So basically, state law says the top two vote getting parties, in this case Republicans and Democrats, each get one of those spots at a precinct. But what about independents?
“It’s pretty straightforward under the Virginia Code,” said Prof. Chris Seaman. He serves as the director of the Francis Lewis Law Center at Washington and Lee University. “The chief officer and assistant for a precinct have to be a D or R. And only if representatives of each party are unavailable can the electoral board turn to nonaffiliated citizens to fill the roles.”
Seaman points to the same section as above, 24.2-115 of the Virginia Code, to highlight this. It says that “where representatives for one or both of the two political parties having the largest number of votes for Governor in the last preceding gubernatorial election are unavailable, citizens who do not represent either of those two political parties may be designated.”
Party volunteers come first
But the key part there, Seaman said, is where Republicans and Democrats are unavailable. Yes, if there are no volunteers from either party available to take the election officer seats, then independent voters can be used. But before independents come in, the parties must have the opportunity to identify any volunteers they can find.
That’s where the issue comes in for Buckingham.
During the 2022 election, the county had 54 independents, 17 Republicans and 12 Democrats serving as precinct chiefs and assistant chiefs. The argument made by the Buckingham Republican Party is they had potential volunteers, both locally and regionally, who could have filled in.
Submit volunteers to Buckingham County Electoral Board
So how does this work? First, 10 days before Feb. 1 each year, each political party is asked to submit a list of election officer volunteers to the Electoral Board. To be clear, this doesn’t always happen. In fact, in Buckingham County, Lindsey Taylor says it almost never does.
“This current year (2023) is the first year that a party chair has filed a list of nominations with the electoral board,” Taylor told The Herald.
In 2022, Taylor said neither Republicans or Democrats filed a list of nominations. Without those recommendations, the previous Electoral Board majority made a choice.
“So yes, the board chose to go with trained and experienced (independent) officers,” she said. “We contacted officers to see if they would represent either party. We then asked the parties if they would approve those officers.”
The issue goes back to what Seamans mentioned earlier about first checking for party volunteers. The Virginia Code doesn’t give a specific cutoff for political parties to submit names. It only says if the electoral board plans to use independents, both parties must be given notice. That means at least 10days prior to the election to try one last time and fill those spots with their own volunteers.
That’s what Buckingham Republican Party Chair Ramona Christian says she was trying to draw attention to.
“The point I was making was not to disparage anyone,” Christian said. “I appreciate the time and the amount of years (the officers) have served, but the law changes every year and we need to make sure everyone knows the law so there are no problems or discrepancies. This was not (done) to hurt anyone. I don’t want to hurt anyone and neither does the Republican Party of Buckingham County. (The point) was to prove we need better training in this county. All of us, Republicans, Democrats, independents, Libertarians, everyone.”
Issues in other parts of the state
Buckingham isn’t the only area in Virginia that’s struggling with that part of the law. Republicans in Prince William County filed a lawsuit Oct. 19, 2022, arguing that the independent election officers the local registrar had chosen to represent the GOP previously had voted in the Democratic primary. The county Republicans wanted their own volunteers to serve in those positions instead and Judge Thomas Horne agreed, saying the timeframe didn’t matter. Horne ordered Prince William County to approve and train the Republican volunteers, which they did in time for all of them to work the election.
“The General Assembly has identified the manner of selection of the officers of election. That selection method is predicated upon the participation of political parties in the process,” Horne wrote in his ruling. “The integrity of the election process requires that [the] public policy of the Commonwealth [be] enunciated by the General Assembly.”
What happens now?
Nothing much changes. After Friday’s meeting, Taylor remains the registrar in Buckingham County, at least through the end of her current contract. The Buckingham County Electoral Board plans to advertise the position and start going through resumes and doing interviews. One change is that during Friday’s closed session, the electoral board voted to get legal advice.
“It was decided by this board that we would contact outside sources to see whether or not we can possibly hire an attorney to advise this board,” Braxton said. “We will contact the state (Department) of Elections, possibly the (Virginia Attorney General) and other people for that purpose.”
No timeline has been set for when that lawyer will be in place.