Virginia elections board will ask prosecutor to investigate claims of irregularities during Richmond vote count

By: - April 20, 2021 4:53 pm

Voters cast ballots in Richmond at the city registrar’s office. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The State Board of Elections voted Tuesday to ask Richmond’s commonwealth’s attorney to look into Republican officials’ accusations that Democratic members of the Richmond Electoral Board may have violated state law by improperly opening sealed result envelopes on election night and completing the vote count at one board member’s home a few days later.

The two members of the city board, Chairman Jim Nachman and Vice Chair Joyce Smith, have denied wrongdoing, saying the claims against them are false and a response from GOP activists unhappy with their decision to replace former Richmond Registrar Kirk Showalter, who had several run-ins with Democratic party officials during her 25 years running elections in the state capital.

At Tuesday’s virtual meeting of the state elections board, which has oversight over city and county electoral boards, Nachman said further investigation was unnecessary because the accusations had already been “debunked.”

“I don’t really see any need to refer this to the commonwealth’s attorney,” Nachman said. “This is just an unfounded accusation which was done in retaliation for us removing Kirk Showalter as registrar. The timing of it is suspect.”

Smith called the accusations “offensive.”

“I know I’m not a liar,” she told the state board. “I don’t have anything to lie about.”

Despite their pleas, the state board, which consists of two Democrats and one Republican, voted unanimously to ask the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin to get to the bottom of the dispute.

“Neither the board nor the [Department of Elections] have the investigative tools or authority to definitively determine the facts in this matter,” said state board Chairman Bob Brink, who was authorized to send a formal letter to McEachin requesting an investigation.

Though it’s not clear where that investigation might lead, it would be a rare probe into the vote-counting process at a time when many election officials are trying to reassure voters the process is secure and trustworthy.

By law, the sitting governor’s party gets two seats on each local electoral board while one goes to the party that doesn’t control the Executive Branch.

In a formal letter laying out its accusations, the Richmond City Republican Committee accused Nachman and Smith of improperly opening envelopes to get precinct election results in the early-morning hours of Nov. 4 without Republican board member Starlet Stevens being present. State law calls for local boards to meet by 5 p.m. the day after the election to finalize results and open returns from precinct officers, a process designed to ensure the results are secure between the polls closing and the public meeting to verify the election outcome.

In a written response, Nachman said Richmond election officers hadn’t called in results for eight voting precincts in the city and the registrar’s office was under pressure to report results in order to determine the winner of the Richmond mayoral election. Nachman said Showalter advised him board members could start opening envelopes to get the results that hadn’t been called in, and Stevens didn’t answer her phone when a call was made to inform her of that plan. Republicans claim Showalter has denied advising the two board members to open the envelopes and was not present when it happened.

Hayden Fisher, the chairman of the Richmond GOP, argued Tuesday that Nachman and Smith should be removed from their positions because they’ve shown they “can’t be trusted to follow the code of Virginia.”

Nachman has acknowledged performing some post-election verification work at his home as the Richmond elections office suffered from a COVID-19 outbreak, but he insists it was not unlawful and that too occurred with Showalter’s blessing. The only process completed at his home, Nachman said, was a simple verification that the registrar’s final results matched the results ascertained by the board.

“With the help of my wife, Kelly, we were able to catch a number of mistakes and were able to move the final vote count and certification process forward,” Nachman wrote in his point-by-point response to the allegations.

Stevens has also claimed Nachman was “verbally aggressive and disrespectful” toward her during a Feb. 1 closed-door board meeting to discuss Showalter’s possible removal as registrar. Stevens says Nachman loudly told her to “shut up” multiple times.

Nachman also denies that accusation, saying it was Stevens who was acting “rude, obnoxious and disrespectful” in the meeting. He has also suggested Stevens may have violated the Freedom of Information Act by revealing events that occurred in a closed session.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.