Local election reform: It’s time
Voters fill out their ballots at the Taylor Masonic Lodge in Scottsville, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)
By Scott Konopasek
As the Virginia General Assembly continues to weigh HB 305, which adds non-partisan members to the State Board of Elections and changes the way the election commissioner is appointed, I urge the legislature to take up similar reforms at the local level.
Election administration and processes in Virginia are out of sync with most of the country. They are stuck in a previous era. The greatest contributor to the debilitating stasis is the institution of partisan local electoral boards.
I have observed that the preferred leadership strategy of local electoral boards, by both parties, is to maintain the status quo. To do nothing. To say no. Or more accurately, to defer to party advantage or pressure. This is why technology and best practices used by the rest of the nation are not available to Virginia. Other places have already solved slow election returns, no excuse absentee and early voting management, reporting all votes by precinct, security of absentee ballots, fraud prevention and detection, accurate poll lists, same day registration and functional statewide registration system (VERIS). Virginia’s partisan electoral boards actively obstruct the adoption of these best practices. The reluctance to progress and adapt is the most unfortunate of consequence for Virginia’s voters.
There are many other compelling reasons for the dissolution or dramatic reform of partisan local electoral boards:
• Meaningful and equal representation of both parties is elusive in a state that does not require party registration.
• The Republican-Democrat composition of electoral boards ignores representation of the 40 percent of voters who don’t identify with either party, as if these voters don’t exist.
• There is no evidence to support the oft-repeated assertion that robust partisanship by both parties leads to more transparency, accuracy and integrity of elections.
• Board members seldom, if ever, have any experience or expertise in elections. They are nominated based on party loyalty — not qualifications. Having been previously elected by voters is no qualification. I have observed little evidence of board members developing any election administration competency during the term of their service.
• Board members take an oath to defend the constitutions of the commonwealth and the United States. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they see it as their duty to protect and serve their respective parties, rather than serving voters and their communities.
• Board members are appointed for a three-year term and cannot be removed for any reason, yet they can fire a registrar without cause at any time. Many general registrars in Virginia fear fo their jobs on an on-going basis.
• The direct or implied threat of being fired is an overly used management strategy by electoral boards, which reflects the lack of respect they have for the office of registrar and those holding the position and harms the administration of Virginia’s elections.
• In recent years, the election code has been transferring duties, previously assigned to the local electoral boards, to registrars and adding the designation of director of elections to their title. There remains a great deal of ambiguity in the code about who is responsible for what and who has authority to do what. This ambiguity and the asymmetrical power position of the registrar versus the electoral board empowers board members to usurp authority, impose partisan answers/solutions and generally meddle into the operations of an election office.
The continued tacit acceptance of the undemocratic nature of local, partisan electoral boards has created a stasis in moving the commonwealth forward in the pursuit of secure, accurate, transparent elections. In an age of hyper partisanship, local electoral boards appointed by political parties negatively impact the effective administration of elections by non-partisan registrars. Unelected, amateur and often self-serving partisans should not have power to over-rule decisions and recommendations of trained, seasoned experts.
Virginia’s professional and highly competent general registrars and directors of election are ready and poised to leverage technology and expertise to Virginia in line with best election practices from around the country. Removing the obstacles to progress posed by local electoral boards will allow these professionals to embrace the best practices of election administration will increase the efficiency and trust of Virginia’s elections. Virginia’s voters deserve reform.
I urge legislators of both parties to continue the reform of Virginia’s election institutions by shifting its focus to the local level. Solutions for today are found looking into the future, not into the past.
Scott O. Konopasek is the former general registrar and director of elections of Fairfax County. Scott came to Virginia from California with nearly 30 years of elections experience in multiple states. He is the recipient of several national awards for “Best Practices” and innovation in the field of elections. His previous service to the nation includes 15 years as a highly decorated Army Intelligence Officer with several overseas and combat tours.
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