Turmoil in Chesterfield County Elections
Beginning before the January 3rd Iowa primary, there was a heady storm of general interest in November’s upcoming presidential election. Eight more primary election dates would build this crescendo of public attention before the Chesapeake primary on 12 February that included Virginia. Election Commissions and Registrars across the Old Dominion were gearing up for what was to be a very high turn out primary. But somehow this preplanning was far insufficient for one Virginia County – Chesterfield County.
Early on the morning of 12 February red flags were going up in the county about long lines and long waits to vote at several insufficiently staffed precincts. And as the day progressed problems compounded to the point that disgusted voters walked away from lines that circled around polling sites. And then even worse -- precincts began running out of ballots. As the polls closed almost 300 votes had been placed on scraps of paper, countless voters had walked away from the long lines, and the county was in the spotlight of a whole lot of angry dissatisfaction with the management of the county’s primary election.
Why were polling places insufficiently manned? Why weren’t contingency plans in place to anticipate long lines and voter turnout that outpaced ballots? These were some of the issues that caused a rare convening of the State Board of Elections for a public hearing that occurred on March 5th.
At the hearing private citizens, interest groups, and politicians alike testified to problems they encountered on voting day and the need for investigation. Jim Holland, the county’s lone Democratic supervisor, anticipated to call for the resignation or removal of the registrar, merely gave a timid admonishment. State Senator John Watkins made a political speech that brought out the one rare applause, but for what I don’t know, as he merely made the political remarks of “there is much to be said on both sides”. And Registrar Larry Haake, although present and glad-handing as if he were running for office, inexplicably chose not to testify at all.
Rumors swirl in the county that Haake is nothing but a political hack who won the cushy position of registrar due to his political network, and that the commission itself was generally incompetent. Haake's wife is said to be an active and supporting Republican and that there is no love lost between the Haakes and the local Democratic bigwigs.
There are 100 counties in Virginia – why was Chesterfield the one county that stood out as having such a poorly managed election? Why were the precincts with the higher level of black voters the precincts most affected? Why wasn’t there, despite the early red flags, a timely response by the county election commission and registrar to deal with the problems? Well the matter is still under investigation. A State Board of Elections report is due out in April. But in the meantime can Chesterfield residents be confident that the current county election officials will be able to manage a fair and orderly election in November without the long lines, long waits, and ballot stock outs?
And is it time to replace this registrar and this election board in the light of their performance and in the interest of an assurance of an orderly presidential election? With the visions of election mishaps in and screw-ups in Florida, Ohio, and Michigan, do we want Chesterfield County and thus Virginia added to that ignominious list – I hope not.