After GOP official’s racist post, Va. elections board asks parties to take local picks seriously

‘The matter never should have landed on the governor’s desk’

By: - April 13, 2022 5:07 pm

Campaign signs outside a polling station in Richmond, Va., November 2, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia State Board of Elections will ask both political parties and the court system to do a better job of vetting appointees to the state’s 133 local electoral boards after the removal of the Republican chairman of the Hampton Electoral Board over a racist Facebook post.

“Governor Youngkin deserves credit for acting quickly and decisively as head of his party to secure this individual’s removal,” State Elections Board Chairman Bob Brink, a former Democratic state delegate, said during a meeting Wednesday. “But as far as I’m concerned, the matter never should have landed on the governor’s desk. I’m convinced that if the responsible entities had done their job and had exercised due diligence, this individual never would have been appointed in the first place.”

The Hampton Circuit Court officially removed local board member David Dietrich from his position earlier this week, responding to a wave of calls for his ouster over an online post that included a racial slur and made references to lynching, according to The Virginian-Pilot.

Under state law, appointees to three-member electoral boards are made by local judges, who make those picks based on recommendations from local political parties. By law, the party that won the most recent gubernatorial election is entitled to a majority of the seats on those boards. Because the three-year terms are staggered, Republicans did not get immediate control of all those boards following Youngkin’s victory. By law, one local board member’s term expires at the end of each year, meaning many boards won’t flip to GOP control until 2023. No matter which party has the majority, the boards, which have the power to hire and fire local election administrators, are supposed to operate objectively.

The racist post in Hampton is the most high-profile recent example of those appointments going badly, but the state board has received several complaints in recent years about local boards veering into overt partisanship or breaking election protocols.

“This isn’t a partisan matter,” Brink said. “Both political parties need to show they appreciate the importance of positions on their local electoral boards and to demonstrate that understanding when they make recommendations to the circuit court for appointments to that board.”

The state board approved a motion authorizing Brink to send a letter to the Republican Party of Virginia, the Democratic Party of Virginia and the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia reminding recipients to take those appointments seriously.

State board member John O’Bannon, a former Republican delegate, said the issue “has not gone away” in his three years on the board.

“I think there’s plenty of work to do,” O’Bannon said. “I think this is a reasonable thing to do to raise the issue with both parties.”

In 2018, a judge suspended two Democratic members of the Hopewell Electoral Board after the were accused of approving ballots printed with some candidates’ names in all-capital letters and others with normal punctuation. Those members were fully removed after a jury trial the next year.

Allegations of vote-processing irregularities were also leveled against Richmond Electoral Board members following the 2020 election. Those claims were ultimately referred to the attorney general’s office for investigation. As of early March, the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares said the matter remained an “ongoing investigation.”

After Dietrich’s post surfaced in Hampton, both the local Republican committee and the governor called for his resignation.

“I won’t accept racism in our commonwealth or our party,” Youngkin said on Twitter Saturday. “The abhorrent words of a Hampton Roads official are beyond unacceptable and have no place in Virginia. It’s time to resign.”

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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.