Special prosecutor trying to sort out elections drama in Nottoway County

By: - August 17, 2022 5:59 pm

A special prosecutor and the Virginia State Police are investigating the Nottoway County election office following months of misconduct accusations raised publicly at state board meetings.

A special prosecutor and the Virginia State Police are investigating the Nottoway County election office following months of misconduct accusations raised publicly at state board meetings.

The State Board of Elections had formally asked the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares to look into the matter, but the board suspended that request Tuesday after being told a law enforcement investigation was underway. 

In a brief update to the board, a representative from the attorney general’s office said the matter is now being handled by Chris Miller, an assistant prosecutor in Chesterfield County, and a special agent from the criminal investigations bureau of the state police.

That development didn’t satisfy a group of Nottoway residents who have been pushing for the state to intervene in what they’ve claimed is a local election office run amok.

“Your lack of concern for our small community has given those who oppose free and fair elections an opportunity to corrupt the very system you represent,” Nottoway resident Diana-Lynn Wilkins-Mitchell told the state board during Tuesday’s meeting.

It’s unclear exactly what’s being investigated. Both Miller and the state police declined to comment Wednesday.

The disputed accusations appear to be rooted in an ongoing, small-town political battle over how the county’s election office is run. Many of the claims are connected to the Nottoway Electoral Board’s bipartisan decision last September to replace the county’s former registrar, Angela Stewart, with current Registrar Rodney Reynolds. 

Stewart had been the Nottoway registrar for nearly three decades. Reynolds is the first Black registrar to serve the largely rural, Republican-leaning county of a little more than 15,000 people, a fact his defenders say partly explains the backlash.

Under Virginia’s system, city and county electoral boards oversee the ground-level work of running elections in their communities. They’re supposed to act in a nonpartisan manner, but state law dictates that the party in control of the governor’s office gets two of the three seats on each board, which is why Democrats have had the majority in Nottoway. Because of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory last year, all boards will flip to Republican control by next year, a shift that could mean more change coming in Nottoway and elsewhere.

Documents presented to the state — one of them an April letter signed by a Republican member of the Nottoway Electoral Board — include claims board members disrupted voting during the 2020 election, changed locks on the registrar’s office, violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act by holding illegal meetings, allowed improper shredding of election-related documents, and allowed the local Democratic Party to give out free hot dogs at the registrar’s office during a Sunday voting event last year. 

“I feel that if these situations continue as they are currently trending that Nottoway County will not be prepared for upcoming elections,” Nottoway Electoral Board member Thomas Reynolds wrote in an April letter to the state. (Thomas Reynolds is not related to Rodney Reynolds.)

In perhaps the most serious allegation, investigators have looked into whether election materials, including ballots and voting machine tapes that are usually delivered to local courthouses after an election, were improperly stored in the registrar’s office before being discovered by Rodney Reynolds after he took over. That dispute centers on how the board handled the discovery of the material in an emergency meeting and whether the local press was allowed to see documents that should have been kept confidential.

Nottoway Democrats have pushed back, calling the allegations false and part of a politically motivated effort to reinstate the former registrar. They’ve also encouraged state investigators to probe the activities of those criticizing the county’s current election leaders.

In a written statement to the state board, Nottoway Electoral Board member Mae Tucker said the claims made at public meetings were coming from “a small group of Republicans from Nottoway.”

“Unfortunately, when accusations are made against public entities, they are unable to speak in their defense due to it being a possible legal matter or due to an active investigation,” Tucker wrote. “This means that only one side of the story is provided. One side can get up and say whatever they want.”

In a letter to a judge in late 2020, a former Republican member of the Nottoway Electoral Board accused the current Democratic chairwoman, Sarah Allen, of interfering with a polling place and calling an election officer “a Karen,” a disturbance that led to police being called.

“She does not avoid partisan politics,” wrote former board member Sonny Abbott, who resigned from the board in early 2021 citing “antagonism and animosity” from his colleagues.

In a response, Judge Paul W. Cella said he saw no reason to undo the three-year term Allen had just been appointed to.

“While it appears, based upon your letter, that you and she do not get along with each other, I do not believe that I have any proper legal basis for removing her,” Cella wrote to Abbott.

Another incident outlined in the documents involved a dispute over an election officer who wasn’t wearing a mask while working the polls. 

While it appears, based upon your letter, that you and she do not get along with each other, I do not believe that I have any proper legal basis for removing her.

– Judge Paul W. Cella

Thomas Crews, the chairman of the Nottoway County Democratic Committee, recounted the incident in a September 2020 email to the county electoral board and asked for the officer to be removed from her position.

In a written statement to the board answering the allegation, the officer, Sharon Caldwell, said Crews was “stating untruths or his opinion.” She insisted she had a medical condition that prevented her from wearing a mask, an exemption covered under former Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive orders during the pandemic.

The packet of documents delivered to the state board include a notice indicating Caldwell was removed from her job as temporary assistant general registrar about a year later. The notice accused Caldwell of “adversely impacting the ability of the electoral board to administer the electoral process without bias.”

Crews authored a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal to the accusations made by Thomas Reynolds, which he also delivered to the state board. 

The claim Allen disrupted voting, Crews wrote, arose from Allen trying to help a would-be voter understand his registration status and other election officials growing so angry about her questioning them on his behalf they called police. Changing the locks when the county hired a new registrar, he said, was “appropriate.” Crews said no electoral board members participated directly in the hot dog giveaway, which he insisted was held an appropriate distance away from the voting location.

“The Nottoway County Democratic Committee offered everyone who showed up free hot dogs, regardless of their political affiliation, and that included every member of the Electoral Board,” Crews wrote. “The Electoral Board members declined the hot dogs during the event.”

In an interview, Chris Page, a former Republican member of the county electoral board who says his party didn’t reappoint him after he voted to remove Stewart, said he thinks the group making the misconduct accusations to the state simply wants a Republican ally running the registrar’s office.

“They’ve come out swinging with accusation, accusation, accusation,” Page said. “But they’re all easily disproven if you look at any kind of paperwork.”

The state elections bureaucracy has little formal power to investigate and punish alleged wrongdoing by local election officials. 

Last year, former Department of Elections Commissioner Chris Piper sent a letter ordering the Nottoway elections board to undergo new training on the duties of the office and the state’s Freedom of Information Act. After reviewing “voluminous materials regarding alleged irregularities” in Nottoway, Piper wrote, state officials determined the board had failed to act appropriately.

“An essential component of serving as an Electoral Board member is to ensure that citizens are afforded an efficient and transparent electoral process,” Piper wrote. “The disputes we have seen as it relates to Nottoway County run exactly counter to that goal.”

Tensions in the county don’t appear to be subsiding.

According to the Crewe Burkeville Journal, the local sheriff’s office was called to the county election office last week in response to a “verbal shouting match” between Rodney Reynolds, the registrar, and Tom Reynolds, the Republican electoral board member.

At a meeting in Richmond this April, Barbara Tabb, the chair of the Prince George Electoral Board who has helped train election officials as a former president of the Virginia Electoral Board Association, told the state elections board the issues in Nottoway were so severe they probably couldn’t be resolved with more training.

“This has been an ongoing disaster,” Tabb said.

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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. Contact him at [email protected]

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