Virginia general registrars prepare for June primary with eyes on changes to election laws

Virginia News

FILE – In this Nov. 3, 2020, file photo voters cast their ballots under a giant mural at Robious Elementary school on Election Day, in Midlothian, Va. As Republicans roll back access to the ballot, Democratic lawmakers have been quietly moving to expand voting rights. In Virginia, Maryland, Nevada and other states where Democrats have control, lawmakers are pushing to make it easier to cast ballots by mail, increase early voting and require greater oversight over changes to election law. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – While expressing appreciation for new laws aimed at improving voter protections in Virginia, two local general registrars noted their concerns over how some may affect election officials moving forward.

Constance Hargrove, Chesterfield County’s director of elections, said in a recent interview that she’s encouraged by the new Voting Rights Act of Virginia but shared there’s “a little angst” among registrars over who will bear the responsibility if an election worker violates the election laws.

The bill, influenced by the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the first such measure enacted in the South, prohibits discrimination in elections and voting administration. Among other provisions, the legislation mandates that Virginia’s election officials get public feedback or the attorney general’s permission before making voting rule changes. 

Lawsuits against local officials can be filed by voters or the attorney general if the law is violated, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Her concern over the voting rights act, Hargrove acknowledged, comes from possible lawsuits over alleged incidents involving temporary election workers. While she takes responsibility for her staff’s training, Hargrove said seasonal employees’ lack of experience can lead to issues at the polls.

“Yes, they’ve [temporary election workers] been trained but they do this once, twice a year. So, some of this stuff that they do is not intentional,” Hargrove told 8News. “And I think that the General Assembly had good intentions of trying to make sure that things are not done to voters to prevent them from voting. But there are unintentional consequences to those things that they did.” 

Hargrove added that she doesn’t envision any issues during the upcoming elections that would warrant such litigation but revealed the possibility of being held responsible is a point of concern.

“Where the concern for us as election officials, and as our officers of elections. We’re all your neighbors. It takes people to be an officer of election and they’re not in this job 24/7, like we live, eat and breathe it,” Teresa Smithson, Hanover’s general registrar, said in an interview last week. “These are people that get trained less than 30 days before the election. You’ve to got to remind them how to use all this and oh wait, here’s all the laws that changed. Don’t forget that.” 

Like Hargrove, Smithson applauded changes to prevent discrimination at the voting polls and said she believes lawsuits would be unlikely but could never be ruled out.

The Voting Rights Act of Virginia also requires districts with a large population of non-English speakers to provide documents in those other languages and prohibits at-large elections in localities that could dilute minorities’ voting rights. 

Virginia’s general registrars have had to learn and implement law changes all while managing a jam-packed election schedule during the coronavirus pandemic. While states delayed elections in the interest of public health and safety during the pandemic, and Gov. Northam pushed last year’s primaries back two weeks, elections could not be put on hold like concerts or sporting events.

Work was done to minimize crowds, make sure people in line remain separate and polling locations were sanitized as voters shuffled in and out. The escalating workload last year led some to decide to move on from being an election official, Smithson said.

“You know, 2020 was a cooker. It was a major presser cooker and a lot of people walked away from that going, ‘I’m retiring. I can’t do this anymore,’” she said. “Because this job has changed so much from what it was 10 years ago.” 

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