“I Voted” stickers spread out on a table at a polling place in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Gov. Glenn Youngkin said Monday he plans to appoint someone new to serve as Virginia’s top election official when current Elections Commissioner Chris Piper’s four-year term expires this summer.
The comment from Youngkin, made in an interview with Trump-supporting radio host John Fredericks, was the first clear indication from the new governor on what he has planned for the Virginia Department of Elections.
In the interview, Fredericks asked Youngkin if he plans to “clean house” at the agency.
“We in fact fully expect that when the current commissioner’s term is up that we will replace him,” Youngkin replied. “We have to make sure the leadership that’s in the Department of Elections is leadership that is looking out for the integrity of the election process and not trying to be political.”
Youngkin’s comment drew a rebuke from current Board of Elections Chairman Bob Brink, a former Democratic delegate who said Piper has led the agency “through the extraordinary challenges of the past several years with unquestioned integrity and professionalism.”
“Gov. Youngkin’s announcement that he plans to fire Chris without cause is a deeply troubling injection of politics into the administration of our elections,” Brink said in a written statement. “It is also a slap in the face to the thousands of local election workers across the commonwealth. Their nonpartisan efforts have produced efficient, accessible, secure and transparent elections that all Virginians can be proud of. Those workers and Virginia’s voters deserve better, as does Chris Piper.”
State law gives incoming governors the power to appoint their own elections commissioner starting July 1 after a gubernatorial election year. Former Govs. Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam both made their own hires for the job after taking office. The commissioner, who must be a qualified Virginia voter, works closely with the state elections board to administer elections, review and certify voting equipment and coordinate with local election offices. By law, a majority of the board seats also go to the governor’s political party.
On Tuesday, Piper said that prior to Youngkin’s comment on the radio he had not had direct talks with the new administration about whether he will be allowed to stay in the job.
“I have not had any discussions with this administration about my appointment status,” Piper said.
Piper held several other jobs in state government before Gov. Ralph Northam picked him to lead the elections agency in 2018. He previously served as deputy director of the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and was the first executive director of the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, a state body created to set clearer anti-corruption rules in the wake of former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s gifts scandal. In an earlier stint with the elections department, he headed up the agency’s campaign finance division.
There were no major election problems under Piper’s tenure, despite his agency being tasked with implementing the numerous changes the Democratic-led General Assembly made in recent years to make voting easier. As in other states, baseless right-wing conspiracy theories proliferated after former President Donald Trump lost Virginia by 10 percentage points in 2020, but no one has produced evidence of widespread irregularities. The same voting system produced an improbable, come-from-behind victory for Youngkin a year later, putting a Republican in the Executive Mansion for the first time since McDonnell left office in early 2014. To defenders of the state’s election processes, the sharply different outcomes in back-to-back years show the system can be trusted to reflect voters’ will without partisan interference.
Though it’s not unusual for governors to pick their own elections commissioner, Piper seeemed to have built respect among lawmakers in both parties. Last week, he spoke in favor of a Republican-sponsored bill to overhaul his own job by making elections commissioners accountable to the state Elections Board instead of the governor’s office. Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, the sponsor of that bill, said it’s not connected to any decision about whether Piper stays or goes, saying she wants to see an “independent agency that operates without the taint of partisanship.”
“I have worked closely with Chris Piper in his various positions at the agency over the years,” Vogel said. “He is unbelievably dedicated and has worked hard.”
Despite a light election calendar in the early part of 2022, the department has several big projects happening this year. They include the implementation of same-day voter registration for elections this fall, reassigning voters under Virginia’s new redistricting plan and an overhaul of the IT system that powers Virginia elections.
After Youngkin made “election integrity” a key campaign talking point, he would likely risk angering some in the GOP base by keeping an election official originally hired by a Democrat, regardless of Piper’s reputation in Richmond.
Youngkin has said he wants to depoliticize the commissioner’s role, but his pick for the Virginia elections job will likely draw extra scrutiny with Democrats (the pick is subject to confirmation by the General Assembly) on guard against anyone seen as lending credence to Trump’s false claims the 2020 election was stolen.
Kay Coles James, Youngkin’s appointee for secretary of the commonwealth, was already questioned about her past remarks on election issues when she appeared before the House Privileges and Elections Committee earlier this month.
In a commentary published on the website of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank she used to lead, Coles James said “fraud, mismanagement and last-minute election rules changes” had “caused those on the right to question the electoral process and Joe Biden’s legitimacy as president.” Coles James also said “Americans should be rightfully concerned about reports of fraud and abuse” in a tweet posted just after the 2020 presidential contest.
“At one point at least you were having some problems with election outcomes last year. You weren’t sure that the president actually won,” Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, asked Coles James during her committee appearance. “Have you come to terms with that?”
“I was never unsure,” Coles James replied. The Republican view on election policy, she said, is that it should be ”easy to vote, hard to cheat.”
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