HOPEWELL — With about a month to go before voters cast ballots in June 12 primary elections, Alan “AJ” Cole needed computer logins. And supplies packed. And a vendor to program voting machinery.
But most of all, he needed those logins. Without them, workers at the office where voters file absentee ballots and other paperwork couldn’t even access their computers.
Hopewell’s longtime registrar had retired. Her deputy didn’t want the job and left last month, setting off a chain of events that led to state and local officials crying foul on the city’s Electoral Board for shoehorning in a replacement who some said was more connected than qualified. With the primaries looming, the Virginia Department of Elections called on Cole to keep Hopewell’s office afloat while the controversy settled.
“We will be able to help anyone who walks into those doors,” Cole said last week. “We will keep it running until the new registrar comes in.”
Questions also swirled about whether the Electoral Board violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The tumult centers on a vote that took place behind closed doors April 12, after candidates were interviewed for the post at a meeting of the city’s Electoral Board.
The two Democrats on the board, which is charged with overseeing elections and the locality’s general registrar, wanted former Hopewell City Councilman Greg Cuffey for the job instead of Tammy Alexander, another applicant who has served as the secretary for Petersburg’s Electoral Board since 2011 and trains electoral boards across the state for the Department of Elections.
Patrick Washington, the sole Republican on the Electoral Board, wanted Alexander. Washington said that when he asked Cuffey for a résumé, Cuffey responded by saying he didn’t need one. He was initially appointed, nonetheless, setting off a firestorm of emails and phone calls from state and local officials concerned about the process. Cuffey couldn’t be reached for comment.
“As someone who trains electoral boards, I was kind of shocked and taken aback,” Alexander said of the interview process.
Efforts to reach Herbert Townes, a Democrat on the Electoral Board, were unsuccessful. Reached by phone Monday, David Silvestro, the second Democrat on the board, said he couldn’t comment and was waiting to discuss the matter with a lawyer.
Washington said he argued with the two other members behind closed doors in favor of Alexander. But at the end of the closed-door meeting, Cuffey was chosen. There was no vote in open session, Washington said, which is required under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
“They do understand that the vote behind closed doors was invalid,” Washington said.
According to notes Alexander typed up afterward, the two Democrats on the Electoral Board refused to look at her during the interview.
“I had to come right out and say their name for them to even acknowledge that I was standing there with my hand out attempting to thank them for the interview,” Alexander wrote. Washington, she wrote, asked her many questions.
“The way the present board treated me, it would have to be a lot of money involved for me to go to Hopewell. They are definitely off the rails over there,” Alexander told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
She said two members showed up for the April 12 meeting 30 minutes late. When she first met with the Electoral Board on April 2 about the job, she said, Silvestro showed up 45 minutes late. When the then-registrar called him to ask where he was, he told him he was in a meeting with another Electoral Board member, her notes read.
“This set off a red flag as there was no scheduled EB [Electoral Board] meeting for that morning, Chairman Patrick Washington was not aware of the meeting, and there are no minutes from that meeting, so I knew these two members were already in violation of FOIA rules,” Alexander wrote in her notes.
The same night of her interview, Alexander got a call from Washington, who told her that someone else was chosen for the job. She said Silvestro later offered her the deputy registrar job, which can really only be offered by the new registrar.
The closed-session decision sparked a flurry of emails, calls and letters among city officials, state lawmakers and state election officials. The Electoral Board canceled at least two meetings after receiving criticism for scheduling them during the middle of the day and for not giving proper notice to the public as required by FOIA, Washington said.
State Department of Elections Commissioner Christopher Piper wrote to Electoral Board members April 29, imploring them to communicate with his office to make sure the city’s office was staffed. A day later, city Mayor Jackie Shornak wrote an email to state lawmakers.
“I realize that this is not within the bailiwick as a councilor but, as a concerned citizen, this affects our city with having a fair and impartial voting process,” she wrote.
State Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, wrote Shornak on April 30 to assure her that Piper was bringing in Cole to operate the office. She also wanted to make sure that the Electoral Board members “understand their responsibility” and asked a Department of Elections representative to attend a board meeting.
Last Thursday, Hopewell’s Electoral Board met again and voted unanimously in open session to consider additional candidates for registrar. Hopewell’s city attorney attended the meeting and called out the motion.
“Over these last weeks, the way the Electoral Board has gone about to hire a registrar has become a great embarrassment to the city of Hopewell. It is unacceptable, and we must not let this be repeated. At tonight’s meeting, the Electoral Board will start on the right path to get this matter corrected,” Washington said at the meeting.
The two other members didn’t comment and were called out afterward by some in the audience for leaving without talking to people.
For now, Cole feels confident that he has righted the ship.
“In one day, we ironed out all the issues we need to keep office running,” said Cole, a retired registrar for James City County whom the state board has turned to before.
When the new registrar comes in within the next couple of weeks, they can hit the ground running, Cole said.
The board is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the second-floor boardroom of the Appomattox Regional Library.