LAST week, Gov. Ralph Northam changed the makeup of the State Board of Elections by appointing three new board members—Democrats Bob Brink and Jamilah LeCruise and Republican John O’Bannon—to replace the three outgoing board members appointed by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Here’s hoping that the new board does a better job than the old one, which turned Virginia’s 2017 legislative elections into a national laughingstock, with Fredericksburg at ground zero.
As readers of The Free Lance–Star will recall, the late Fredericksburg Registrar Juanita Pitchford had warned state elections officials 18 months before the Nov. 7, 2017, election that some voters living in split precincts in the 28th and 88th House Districts had been incorrectly assigned to the wrong legislative districts.
“If a special election were to occur, we would have a problem,” Pitchford dutifully reported in a March 2016 email to the board. “If you look at the Legislative District Maps on the [General Assembly’s] website, those maps clearly show the splits, but that is in contradiction to the language of the Code!”
Not only did the board ignore Pitchford’s clear and prescient warning that the voter database needed to be corrected, attempts were made to blame her posthumously for the colossal screw-up that followed the board’s inaction, which disenfranchised 147 Fredericksburg voters, including 86 in the 28th District who were given the wrong ballots.
As it turned out, control of the House of Delegates hinged on the results in the 28th. Del. Bob Thomas was certified the winner by just 73 votes following a recount. Another 61 voters who cast ballots in Del. Mark Cole’s 88th District were also given the wrong ballot, but his margin was large enough to give him the victory without counting those votes.
Pitchford wasn’t the only one sounding the alarm. During the 2015 GOP primary, former House Speaker Bill Howell’s campaign also alerted the state board about discrepancies in the 28th and 88th District maps. Two red flags, and both went unheeded by the board, even though it’s one of the board’s main responsibilities to supervise local election registrars and make sure the electoral maps are in compliance with state law.
When The Free Lance–Star asked the former board members—then-chairman James Alcorn, Singleton McAllister, and Clara Belle Wheeler, as well as then-Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortes, who reported to them—whether they had made any effort to correct the problem or whether anyone had been disciplined for the subsequent ballot fiasco that followed, none of them responded to our repeated requests for comment.
Wheeler later hinted that the board was culpable when she urged all local registrars in Virginia, not just in Fredericksburg, to double-check their district lines—something that board members themselves should have done 18 months earlier when Pitchford first brought the issue to their attention.
According to state law, two board members must be from the governor’s party and one from the opposition. Brink and O’Bannon are former delegates from Arlington and Henrico, respectively, and LeCruise is a Norfolk attorney. Between them, they should have the political and legal expertise to oversee open, fair and mishap-free elections in the commonwealth.
The three nominees must first be approved by the General Assembly. If there is anything in any of their backgrounds to even suggest that they would not discharge their duties honorably and well, legislators can and should exercise their veto power. The State Board of Elections is not the place to park political cronies or cash in political favors.
If approved, the trio will serve four-year terms. They will have more than seven months to make doubly sure that there are no unwelcome surprises during what are likely to be hotly contested legislative races in November. In today’s closely-divided and highly-charged political environment, the commonwealth cannot afford another election snafu.