Buckingham County adds a new registrar, electoral board member

DILLWYN – Buckingham County has a new registrar and a new member appointed to the electoral board, just as another member has stepped down. Tuesday, April 11 was a busy day in the county, as paperwork was signed and decisions made. 

Luis Gutierrez will serve as the county’s newest registrar, only its third in more than 30 years. He was appointed by the electoral board to fill the seat left empty after previous registrar Lindsey Taylor resigned in March. Now to be clear, Gutierrez is serving in an interim capacity at present. That is, he’s serving out the last few months of Taylor’s term, which ends on June 30. At that point, the electoral board will decide if they want to bring Gutierrez on for a full four-year term of his own or part ways. 

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. 

Margaret Thomas served more than 28 years before retiring in 2019 and Taylor served as registrar from then until her resignation last month. 

The Code just has one qualification for a registrar. That is, the person “shall be a qualified voter of the county or city for which he is appointed.” And Gutierrez checks off that box as he is a registered voter in Buckingham County. 

Gutierrez earned his bachelor’s in Sociology from the University of Virginia, with a masters from Saint Joseph University in Criminal Justice and Behavior Management. He’s currently working on a doctorate in Criminal Justice at Liberty University. The Herald attempted to reach out to Gutierrez but we haven’t been able to contact him since his appointment. 

Changes on the Electoral Board 

There have also been some shifts with Buckingham’s electoral board. As referenced earlier, Democrat Gail Braxton resigned her seat last month. Republican Sandy Banks-Bertwell, who served as the group’s third member and secretary, resigned this week, effective as of Tuesday, April 11. One of those positions has been filled and the other is expected to be addressed within the next week. 

Now there are rules to follow in order to fill a seat on the electoral board. Virginia Code Section 24.2-106 says “in the appointment of the electoral board, 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. Two electoral board members shall be of the political party that cast the highest number of votes for Governor at that election.” 

In this case, that means a Republican majority. It also means the third member must be a Democrat. As for who chooses those replacements, the Virginia Code is pretty clear on that too. The respective political parties submit a list of at least three choices to the “chief judge of the judicial circuit for the county.” Then the judge makes a final selection based on those options. 

Taking the seat of Gail Braxton will be Woody Hanes. 

Hanes is well-known in the area as a former Buckingham County School Board member, a former poll worker and election precinct officer. But what she’s most known for is her time at Buckingham County High, where she was a nursing instructor. 

“I was an election officer at a precinct for several years,” Hanes said. “So I do have a little experience in how elections are run. I don’t know all the ins and outs, but I’m learning.”

She added that the goal is to get a full board in place, then look at selecting officers and getting on with the county’s business. 

“The key thing is to have this office functioning,” Hanes said. “That’s the main goal. We’re getting the computers set up, getting the new registrar up to date. The office is open and it’s functioning.” 

Hanes said she’s been active in politics a long time and when this opening came up, she volunteered. 

“I wanted to step in and help with the situation,” Hanes said. “We want to make sure there are fair elections in Buckingham.”

Up next is finding someone to fill the seat left vacant by Banks-Bertwell. On Wednesday, Buckingham County Republican Party Chair Ramona Christian said she has a list of names and submitted that to the judge. 

“I hope that shortly Buckingham County will have a full electoral board that can work together,” Christian said, adding that she welcomed Hanes as a member of the group. “She was an absolutely fantastic nursing teacher at Buckingham High School. I am sure she will be an excellent addition to the electoral board.” 

What caused the Buckingham County problems? 

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. In an interview with The Herald earlier this year, Seaman said “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. 

What happens next in Buckingham County? 

So now what happens next? Well, the electoral board is scheduled to have a meeting on Monday, April 17, but both of the current members think it’s best to postpone. 

“We want to wait until that third person is on,” Hanes said.

In the meantime, both board members say, the Buckingham elections office is open for business.

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