Election official with voting stickers at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/Virginia Mercury)
Nottoway County’s former election registrar and one of her assistants have filed separate federal lawsuits claiming they were wrongfully fired from the elections office last year and should be reinstated to their old jobs.
The pair of suits, which both name several county boards and local officials as defendants, were filed last week by Angela Stewart, who served as the county’s registrar for nearly three decades until she was terminated almost exactly one year ago, and Sharon Caldwell, a longtime Nottoway officer of election who served as an assistant registrar for two years.
The lawsuits — which include claims of due process violations, wrongful termination, free-speech violations and defamation — are the latest development in a long-running fight over the rural county’s elections office. With two factions lodging broad accusations of skullduggery and illegality against each other, the litigation could shed more light on who has the law on their side.
The county has not yet filed a formal response, but an attorney said Nottoway expects the claims to be dismissed.
“The lawsuits have no merit, factually or legally, for many reasons,” said Andrew McRoberts of the Richmond-based Sands Anderson law firm.
In addition to asking the courts to give them their positions back, Stewart and Caldwell are both seeking back pay and damages. The two women have retained the same law firm for the litigation, Roanoke-based Williams & Strickler. Their attorneys declined to comment.
Under Virginia law, city and county election registrars answer to three-member boards controlled by whichever political party won the most recent gubernatorial election. Those boards, made up of local party activists selected by judges, are supposed to operate in a nonpartisan manner. But some election officials feel the state needs stronger laws to protect registrars from being fired for specious or political reasons, arguing the current system makes registrars susceptible to pressure from the party in power.
The court filings claim the Democratic-controlled Nottoway Electoral Board fired Stewart and Caldwell without sufficient proof they had failed to carry out their duties according to state law. The lawsuits also insist various local figures falsely accused Stewart and Caldwell of wrongdoing to support their termination.
Democratic members of the Nottoway Electoral Board have portrayed Stewart’s firing as justified and have defended the person hired to replace her, current Registrar Rodney Reynolds, against a backlash they say is unfounded and driven largely by Republican activists.
Stewart says she was given no “meaningful opportunity” to defend herself before the meeting last year where the board unanimously voted to remove her. She claims that meeting violated state transparency laws, because the agenda gave no notice the board would consider a vote to fire her.
The suit says Stewart was only served with a notice on the night of the meeting, and its official justification for her firing was inaccurate. The notice said Stewart had failed to post information about early voting locations in the county and failed to “apply for grant funding for Sunday voting in a manner that would permit the electoral board to adequately prepare for the upcoming election,” according to court records. Stewart says she posted the legally required notices of all voting locations and contends any dispute over how to handle Sunday voting can’t legally justify her firing.
Caldwell’s complaint is similar, claiming her removal was also unlawful because she didn’t violate her duties as an assistant registrar and election officer.
The defendants named in Stewart’s lawsuit are the county in general, the Nottoway Board of Supervisors, the Nottoway Electoral Board and its individual members, Nottoway Democratic Committee Chairman Thomas Crews and Nottoway Supervisor John Roark.
The suit claims Roark attended a closed session of the Nottoway Electoral Board as Stewart’s job was being discussed and “has boasted that he played a role in the removal.”
Stewart’s complaint accuses Crews of spreading “false and defamatory” information about Stewart by claiming she created a bogus certificate of election for an unnamed Nottoway official. Crews declined to comment.
Early voting for the midterm elections began last week, but it’s highly unlikely the Nottoway lawsuits could advance fast enough to cause another leadership change in the county elections office before Nov. 8.
In 2019, when Democrats controlled all local electoral boards, the General Assembly passed a Republican-sponsored bill that would’ve given courts the final authority to decide when a registrar should be removed from office. At the time, supporters argued it would insulate registrars from political pressure.
Former Gov. Ralph Northam vetoed the bill, saying that “Virginia law already provides specific circumstances in which a registrar can be removed” and creating a lengthier court process would make it difficult to get rid of registrars who might be “egregiously breaking the law.”
“This legislation has far too many unintended consequences,” Northam wrote in his veto message.
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