The top election official for one of Virginia’s largest counties announced on Friday that he was quitting his job later this year due to stress and called out what he described as a ‘bullshit’ scheme by local Republicans to attempt to undermine his office by installing their own people in poll watcher jobs.
Prince William County Registrar Eric Olsen said he would resign after the midterm elections after a local GOP leader phoned poll workers suggesting they would receive different assignments on Election Day than those that Olsen had announced. The Elections Office also received a letter from a local GOP attorney threatening legal action if Republicans did not secure more representation in the roles of chief election officer and senior deputy leader.
Olsen said he has worked diligently to recruit more Republican election officers in Prince William — a northern Virginia county of more than 465,000 people that will be a key battleground in this year’s congressional races — without much help from the local Republican party he felt was turning unnecessarily hostile.
“I am resigning after this election,” Olsen said to the surprise of many in attendance at Prince William’s Electoral Council meeting on Friday. “Because if that’s how Registrars General are treated when they’re trying to do the right thing, then by God what happens when something goes wrong?”
Olsen, who won the Prince William job last year after more than a decade of electoral work, added that he had recently received bad medical news about a heart condition, as well as the stress and pressure of working in an atmosphere of widespread suspicion towards electoral officials. became too dangerous for his health.
“When I get mad, I get mad. And I think that’s bullshit,” Olsen said. “If I die next year, I wouldn’t be a very good registrar anyway.”
The surprise announcement comes amid growing concern over the morale of those doing the groundwork to organize the Virginia election. Local election offices across the state continue to face scrutiny of their operations, largely tied to unfounded right-wing conspiracy theories about fraud and other issues in the 2020 presidential election. As a result, many Republican activists are showing increased interest in signing up for jobs that allow them to closely monitor how the vote works.
Prince William appears to be the rare locality in Virginia to have had a legitimate election problem in 2020. Former county clerk Michele White was recently charged with corruption related to the 2020 cycle, but state and local officials are refusing to explain the case.
The new controversy over Prince William centers on a state law that gives local political parties control over election officials and additional power to designate who should serve as chief electoral officer and deputy chief electoral officer. The law requires parties to submit candidates for election officer positions at the start of the year, requires clerks to draw from those lists “if possible” and prioritizes partisan candidates for lead roles.
Republicans have suggested Olsen was overreacting to a demand for compliance with a law they say prohibited Prince William from using more experienced, nonpartisan election officials if a Republican, regardless of his level of experience, is available.
“Best efforts and good intentions are no substitute for obeying the law,” said Republican Electoral Council member London Steverson. “And I’m sorry Eric went for the nuclear option here.”
In an interview, Prince William County GOP Chairman Denny Daugherty said he was simply asking the county to honor the right of political parties to choose their own representatives instead of having to accept the Registrar’s picks. .
“I shouldn’t be stuck with people who aren’t really Republicans, and she shouldn’t be stuck with people who aren’t really Democrats,” Daugherty said, gesturing to Prince William’s Democratic committee chair. , Tonya James.
James said she thinks there may be valid concern about the process, but she said it could be resolved in future election cycles instead of creating uncertainty weeks before Election Day.
“I understand Denny’s concerns about some of the chiefs and co-chiefs,” James said. “I’m not so worried that maybe they need to be reassigned at this point. But to move forward, it must be a priority.
Daugherty estimated that the problem affected 20 to 30 positions.
The state Department of Elections recently resented former guidelines clarifying the process for partisan involvement in the selection of election officers, a document Daugherty says supports its interpretation of the law.
The dust drew thunderous condemnation from Prince William’s Electoral Council member Keith Scarborough, a Democrat, who pounded the table while calling the GOP’s decision “incredibly outrageous.”
“I really can’t believe anyone thinks it’s a good idea to take an experienced leader out of a constituency and plug in someone who’s never been in an election,” Scarborough told reporters after the meeting. “If that’s what Republicans think should happen, I’m not buying it.”
After the Elections Commission held a closed session to discuss the matter, Scarborough said the county would not grant Daugherty’s request. But Olsen said he expects the two sides to try to find a compromise.
Daugherty said he was surprised the board didn’t appear to consult with the county attorney about what the law requires.
“It would be a shame if we had to take legal action to get them involved in reviewing what is patently illegal,” Daugherty said.
Most of Prince William’s voters live in the 7th Congressional District, where a fiercely competitive contest between Democratic Representative Abigail Spanberger and Republican challenger Yesli Vega is taking place. The county also touches the 10th congressional district, where Republican Hung Cao challenges Democratic Representative Jennifer Wexton in a race that should favor Democrats but could be close if Republicans have a surprisingly strong showing in November.
Although Olsen received bipartisan praise as a capable and efficient election administrator who served Prince William’s voters well, he told reporters he would not reconsider his decision to step down, perhaps as soon as the end november.
In 2020, Olsen said, Prince William had 466 Democratic and 201 Republican election workers. This year, he said, there are 399 Democrats and 402 Republicans, the result of a targeted recruiting effort by his office to achieve partisan parity.
“To do all of this and then bring the party in with a team of lawyers… They didn’t even appoint officers by the deadline,” Olsen said. “They haven’t done much in terms of recruiting.”
The timing of Olsen’s departure could be important. For now, Democrats have a 2-1 majority on the County Board of Elections to which Olsen reports. But the board will come under Republican control at the end of the year due to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s victory last year, raising questions about who will be in charge when the board chooses a successor. ‘Olsen.
“It’s not a good time to be an election official right now,” Olsen said in publicly announcing his departure. “And I think there’s a legitimate fear of what might happen for people who are just trying to do their jobs.”
Unanswered questions about 2020
At the meeting, Scarborough, the Democratic board member, denounced the tendency for election offices to be inundated with requests under the Freedom of Information Act regarding the 2020 election. These requests, a- he says, are a waste of time and money for people still clinging to the “big lie” that widespread fraud happened in 2020.
But Scarborough said he could not comment on the ongoing corruption case which has raised doubts about the accuracy of the official vote totals Prince William reported in 2020.
Scarborough largely declined to discuss White’s indictment for corrupt conduct, misrepresentation as an election official and dereliction of duty as an election official. When asked if the county’s 2020 vote tally was accurate, Scarborough replied: “that’s one of the things in question”.
“But I can tell you that whatever problems there were with the voting reports, nothing would have changed the results of any election on the ballot,” he said.
Electoral board member Pamela R. Walker said Attorney General Jason Miyares did not tell local officials about the case.
“So I don’t know what he found,” Walker said.
Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita declined to give details of the indictments this week, saying, “I cannot comment on ongoing cases.”
The attorney general’s office revealed the indictments against White just days before announcing a dedicated “election integrity unit.” In a statement last month, the Republican Party of Virginia said the prosecution sends “a strong message to election officials across the state to obey the law.”
State Board of Elections Chairman Bob Brink also declined to comment on the matter, citing “ongoing litigation.”
In an interview, Olsen said he was not fully aware of the basis of the indictments. But he acknowledged the problem, whatever it was, led to a slightly skewed vote tally for Prince William in 2020.
“Were they accurate? No,” Olsen said. “Were they enough to make a difference in any of the races? Nope.”
Former President Donald Trump lost Virginia to President Joe Biden by ten percentage points or more than 450,000 votes.
In her first public comments on the matter, White told the Washington Post that the case against her was a politically motivated effort by Republicans to justify the new Election Integrity Unit. The attorney general’s office called the claim “completely false.”
by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury
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