Top Prince William election official says he’s quitting amid dispute with local GOP

‘It’s not a good time to be an election official right now’

By: - October 7, 2022 4:51 pm

Prince William Registrar Eric Olsen announced Friday that he’s quitting his job after the next election, citing health concerns and the growing stress of operating under intense partisan scrutiny. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

The top election official in one of Virginia’s biggest counties announced Friday that he’s quitting his job later this year due to stress and called out what he described as a “bullshit” ploy by local Republicans to try to undermine his office by installing their own people in jobs overseeing polling places.

Prince William County Registrar Eric Olsen said he would resign after the midterm elections after a local GOP leader made phone calls to election officers suggesting they would be getting different Election Day assignments than the ones Olsen had announced. The elections office also received a letter from a lawyer for the local GOP threatening a lawsuit if Republicans didn’t get more representation in the higher-ranking election chief and assistant chief roles.

Olsen said he had worked diligently to recruit more Republican election officers in Prince William — a Northern Virginia county of more than 465,000 people that will be a key battleground in this year’s congressional races — without much assistance from the local Republican party he felt was turning needlessly hostile.

“I am resigning after this election,” Olsen said to the surprise of many attending Friday’s Prince William Electoral Board meeting. “Because if this is how the general registrars are treated when they are trying to do the right thing, then by God, what happens when something goes wrong?”

Olsen, who got the Prince William job just last year after more than a decade of elections work, added that he had recently received bad medical news about a heart condition, and the stress and pressure of working in an atmosphere of rampant suspicion of election officials was becoming too hazardous to his health.

“When I get pissed off, I get pissed off. And I think this is bullshit,” Olsen said. “If I’m dead next year, I won’t be a very good registrar anyway.”

The surprise announcement comes amid growing concern about the morale of the people who do the ground-level work of running Virginia elections. Local election offices throughout the state are still facing intense scrutiny of their operations, much of it tied to unfounded right-wing conspiracy theories about fraud and other problems in the 2020 presidential election. As a result of that, many Republican activists are showing increased interest in signing up for jobs that let them keep a close eye on how voting works.

Campaign signs outside the election office in Prince William County, a closely watched battleground in the midterm contests. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

Prince William appears to be the rare Virginia locality that had a legitimate election problem in 2020. The county’s former registrar, Michele White, was recently indicted on corruption charges related to the 2020 cycle, but state and local officials are refusing to explain what the case is about.

The new Prince William controversy centers on a state law that gives local political parties oversight of who’s serving as election officers and extra power to designate who should serve as chief and assistant chief election officers. The law requires parties to submit nominees for officers of election early in the year and instructs registrars to pull from those lists “if practicable” and prioritize partisan nominees for the chief roles.

Republicans suggested Olsen was overreacting to a request that he follow a law that they said prohibits Prince William from using more experienced nonpartisan election officers if a Republican, no matter their experience level, is available.

“Best efforts and good intentions are not a substitute for obeying the law,” said Republican Electoral Board member London Steverson. “And I’m sorry Eric has gone to the nuclear option here.”

In an interview, Prince William County GOP Chair Denny Daugherty said he’s simply asking the county to honor the political parties’ rights to pick their own representatives instead of having to accept the registrar’s choices.

“I shouldn’t be stuck with people who are not really Republicans and she shouldn’t be stuck with people who aren’t really Democrats,” Daugherty said, motioning to Prince William Democratic Committee Chair Tonya James.

James said she felt there may be valid concern about the process, but she said it could be addressed in future election cycles instead of creating uncertainty just a few weeks out from Election Day.

“I do understand Denny’s concerns about some of the chiefs and assistant chiefs,” James said. “I’m not concerned to the point that maybe they need to be reassigned at this juncture. But moving forward, that needs to be a priority.”

Daugherty estimated the issue involved 20 to 30 positions.

The state Department of Elections recently resent old guidance clarifying the process on partisan involvement in picking officers of election, a document Daugherty said backs his interpretation of the law.

The dustup drew a thundering condemnation from Prince William Electoral Board member Keith Scarborough, a Democrat, who pounded the table while calling the GOP’s move “incredibly outrageous.”

“I genuinely cannot believe that anyone thinks it’s a good idea to take an experienced chief out of a precinct and plug in someone who’s never worked an election,” Scarborough told reporters after the meeting. “If that’s what the Republicans think should be happening, I don’t buy it.”

After the electoral board held a closed session to discuss the issue, Scarborough indicated the county would not be acceding to Daugherty’s request. But Olsen said he expects the two sides to try to work out a compromise.

Daugherty said he was surprised the board didn’t appear to be consulting with the county attorney on what the law requires.

“It would be a shame if we had to file a suit in order to get their involvement in reviewing what is patently illegal,” Daugherty said.

Most of Prince William’s voters live in the 7th Congressional District, where a hotly competitive contest is playing out between Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger and Republican challenger Yesli Vega. The county also touches the 10th Congressional District, where Republican Hung Cao is challenging Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton in a race that should favor Democrats but could be close if Republicans have a surprisingly strong showing in November.

Though Olsen won bipartisan praise as a competent and effective election administrator who’s served Prince William voters well, he told reporters he wouldn’t reconsider his decision to step down, possibly as soon as late November.

In 2020, Olsen said, Prince William had 466 Democratic election officers and 201 Republicans. This year, he said, there are 399 Democrats and 402 Republicans, the result of a targeted recruitment effort by his office to achieve partisan parity.

“To do all that and then to have the party come in with a team of lawyers … They didn’t even nominate officers by the deadline,” Olsen said. “They haven’t done much in the way of recruiting.”

The timing of Olsen’s departure could be significant. For now, Democrats have a 2-1 majority on the county electoral board to which Olsen reports. But the board will flip to Republican control at the end of the year due to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory last year, raising questions about who will be in control when the board picks Olsen’s successor.

“It’s not a good time to be an election official right now,” Olsen said as he publicly announced his departure. “And I think there’s legitimate fear about what could come down the road for people who are just trying to do their jobs.”

Unanswered questions about 2020

At the meeting, Scarborough, the Democratic board member, denounced the trend of election offices being inundated with Freedom of Information Act requests about the 2020 election. Those requests, he said, are a waste of time and money by people still hung up on “the big lie” that widespread fraud occurred in 2020.

But Scarborough said he too could not comment on the pending corruption case that has raised doubts about the accuracy of the official vote totals Prince William reported in 2020.

Scarborough largely declined to discuss the indictment of White on charges of corrupt conduct, making a false statement as an election official and neglect of duty by an election official. Asked if the county’s 2020 vote counts were accurate, Scarborough said “that’s one of the things in question.”

“But I can tell you that whatever issues there were with the vote reporting, there was nothing that would’ve changed the results of any election on the ballot,” he said.

Electoral Board member Pamela R. Walker said Attorney General Jason Miyares hasn’t briefed local officials on the case.

“So I don’t know what he’s found,” Walker said.

Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita refused to elaborate on the indictments this week, saying, “I cannot comment on ongoing cases.”

The attorney general’s office revealed the indictments against White just a few days before announcing a dedicated “election integrity unit.” In a statement last month, the Republican Party of Virginia said the prosecution sends “a strong message to election officials throughout the state to follow the law.”

State Board of Elections Chairman Bob Brink also refused to comment on the case, citing “pending litigation.”

In an interview, Olsen said he too isn’t fully aware of what the indictments are based on. But he acknowledged the problem, whatever it was, led to slightly skewed vote counts from Prince William in 2020.

“Were they accurate? No,” Olsen said. “Were they enough to make a difference in any of the races? No.”

Former President Donald Trump lost Virginia to President Joe Biden by 10 percentage points, or more than 450,000 votes.

In her first public comments on the matter, White told The Washington Post the case against her was a politically motivated effort by Republicans to justify the new election integrity unit. The attorney general’s office called that claim “utterly false.”

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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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