Special Prosecutor trying to settle Nottoway County election drama

A special prosecutor and the Virginia State Police are investigating the Nottoway County Election Office after months of accusations of misconduct raised publicly at state board meetings.

The State Board of Elections had formally requested Attorney General Jason Miyares’ office to review the case, but the board suspended that request on Tuesday after being told a law enforcement investigation was underway.

In a brief board update, a representative from the Attorney General’s office said the case is now being handled by Chris Miller, an assistant Chesterfield County prosecutor and a special constable with the Chesterfield Police Criminal Investigations Bureau. State.

This development did not satisfy a group of Nottoway residents who lobbied for state intervention in what they claimed was a local election office gone mad.

“Your disregard for our small community has given those who oppose free and fair elections an opportunity to corrupt the very system you represent,” Nottoway resident Diana-Lynn Wilkins-Mitchell said. to the Council of State during Tuesday’s meeting.

It is unclear exactly what is being investigated. Miller and state police declined to comment Wednesday.

The disputed charges appear to be rooted in an ongoing political battle in a small town over how the county election office is run. Many of the claims relate to the Nottoway Electoral Board’s bipartisan decision last September to replace former County Registrar Angela Stewart with current Registrar Rodney Reynolds.

Stewart had been Nottoway’s Registrar for almost three decades. Reynolds is the first black registrar to serve the largely rural, Republican-leaning county of just over 15,000 people, a fact his advocates say partly explains the backlash.

In the Virginia system, city and county election boards oversee the groundwork of conducting elections in their communities. They’re supposed to act nonpartisan, but state law dictates that the party that controls the governor’s office gets two of the three seats on each council, which is why the Democrats had the majority in Nottoway. Due to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s victory last year, all councils will come under Republican control next year, a change that could mean more changes in Nottoway and elsewhere.

The documents presented to the state – one of them an April letter signed by a Republican member of the Nottoway Electoral Council – include board members who halted voting in the 2020 election, changed the locks of the registrar’s office, violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act by holding illegal meetings, allowed improper shredding of election-related materials, and allowed the local Democratic Party to hand out free hot dogs at the office of the Registrar in a vote on Sunday last year.

“I believe that if these situations continue as they are now in vogue, Nottoway County will be unprepared for the next election,” Nottoway Electoral Council member Thomas Reynolds wrote in an April letter to the state. (Thomas Reynolds is not related to Rodney Reynolds.)

In perhaps the most serious allegation, investigators investigated whether election materials, including ballots and recordings from voting machines that are typically delivered to local courthouses after an election, had been improperly stored in the Registrar’s office before being discovered by Rodney Reynolds after taking office. This dispute concerns how the council handled the discovery of the material during an emergency meeting and whether the local press was allowed to see documents that should have been kept confidential.

Nottoway Democrats pushed back, calling the allegations false and part of a politically motivated effort to reinstate the former registrar. They also encouraged state investigators to investigate the activities of those who criticize the county’s current election leaders.

In a written statement to the state board, Nottoway Electoral Board member Mae Tucker said the claims made at public meetings came from “a small group of Republicans in Nottoway.”

“Unfortunately, when charges are brought against public entities, they are unable to speak up in their defense as it is a potential court case or ongoing investigation,” Tucker wrote. “It means that only one side of the story is provided. One side can stand up and say whatever it wants.

In a letter to a judge in late 2020, a former Republican member of the Nottoway Electoral Board accused current Democratic chairwoman Sarah Allen of interfering with a polling place and calling an election official “Karen “, a disturbance that led to the police. to be called.

“She doesn’t shy away from partisan politics,” wrote former board member Sonny Abbott, who resigned from the board in early 2021 citing “antagonism and animosity” from colleagues.

In a response, Judge Paul W. Cella said he saw no reason to overturn the three-year term to which Allen had just been appointed.

“Although it appears from your letter that you and her do not get along, I do not believe I have a proper legal basis to withdraw it,” Cella wrote to Abbott.

Another incident described in the documents involved a dispute over an election official who did not wear a mask while working at polling stations.

Although it appears, based on your letter, that she and you did not get along, I do not believe I have a proper legal basis to fire her.

Thomas Crews, the chairman of the Nottoway County Democratic Committee, recounted the incident in a September 2020 email to the county electoral board and called for the officer to be removed from office.

In a written statement to the board responding to the allegation, the officer, Sharon Caldwell, said Crews was “stating untruths or her opinion.” She insisted she had a medical condition that prevented her from wearing a mask, an exemption covered by former Governor Ralph Northam’s executive orders during the pandemic.

The package of documents given to the state board includes a notice that Caldwell was removed from his position as temporary deputy registrar general about a year later. The notice accused Caldwell of having “a negative impact on the ability of the electoral commission to administer the electoral process without bias”.

Crews wrote a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal of the charges made by Thomas Reynolds, which he also delivered to the state board.

The claim that Allen disrupted the vote, Crews wrote, arose from Allen trying to help a potential voter understand her registration status and other election officials becoming so angry with her questioning them in her name they called the police. Changing the locks when the county hired a new registrar, he said, was “appropriate.” Crews said no member of the electoral council was directly involved in the hot dog distribution, which he said was held at an appropriate distance from the polling place.

“The Nottoway County Democratic Committee offered everyone who showed up free hot dogs, regardless of political affiliation, and that included all members of the Electoral Board,” Crews wrote. “Members of the Electoral Council refused hot dogs during the event.”

In an interview, Chris Page, a former Republican member of the County Election Board who says his party did not reappoint him after voting to impeach Stewart, said he believes the group bringing the misconduct charges to the state just wants a Republican ally to show up. the Registrar’s office.

“They came out swinging with accusations, accusations, accusations,” Page said. “But they’re all easily refuted if you look at any type of paperwork.”

The state election bureaucracy has little formal power to investigate and punish alleged wrongdoing by local election officials.

Last year, former Electoral Department commissioner Chris Piper sent a letter directing the Nottoway Electoral Council to undergo new training on the duties of the office and the state’s Freedom of Information Act . After reviewing “voluminous documents relating to alleged improprieties” at Nottoway, Piper wrote, state officials determined that the board had not acted appropriately.

“An essential element of the duties of an electoral council member is to ensure that citizens benefit from an efficient and transparent electoral process,” Piper wrote. “The disputes we’ve seen over Nottoway County run exactly counter to that goal.”

Tensions in the county don’t seem to be easing.

According to the Crewe Burkeville Journalthe local sheriff’s office was summoned to the county election office last week in response to a “verbal shouting match” between Rodney Reynolds, the clerk, and Tom Reynolds, the Republican election board member.

At a meeting in Richmond in April, Barbara Tabb, chairwoman of the Prince George Election Commission, who has helped train election officials as the former president of the Virginia Electoral Board Association, told the Election Commission of state that the problems at Nottoway were so severe that they probably couldn’t be solved with more training.

“It’s been a permanent disaster,” Tabb said.

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