Citing ‘debilitating stress,’ Prince William County’s recently hired Director of Elections Eric Olsen said Friday he’ll leave his post after the Nov. 8 election. Olsen made the announcement during a heated meeting of the county electoral board during which tempers flared over whether there would be an equal partisan split of chief and assistant chief election officers assigned to each of the county’s 103 voting precincts.
Olsen, 46, said he was recently diagnosed with a heart condition and needs to prioritize his health and can’t continue doing his job in the current political climate.
“It’s not a good time to be an election official right now,” he said during the meeting, held Friday, Oct. 7 at the Old Courthouse in Manassas. “I think there’s legitimate fear about what could come down the road for people that are just trying to do their jobs.”
Olsen’s announcement came after Denny Daugherty, chair of the Prince William County Republican Committee, said during public comment time that the committee had retained legal counsel and was seeking to compel the electoral board to make changes to Election Day worker assignments at several polling places.
The local Republican Committee also submitted a letter through its counsel on Thursday, Oct. 6, to the electoral board demanding that it “immediately act” to appoint the party’s “designated representatives as either chief or assistant chief election officers in the requested precincts.”
After the meeting, Keith Scarborough, the board’s secretary, said no changes would be made to assignments at this point.
“We’re proceeding with the assignments that have already been made and announced. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve done everything that we can do to increase the number of Republicans that have been recruited and assigned,” he said.
Scarborough is one of two Democrats who serve on the three-member electoral board. The board will switch to two Republicans and one Democrat next year because the board's partisan lean must match that of the elected governor, according to Virginia law.
GOP objects to party imbalance between chief, assistant chief election officers
On Election Day, the chief election officer assigned to each precinct’s polling place has the last word on all decisions in the precinct unless questions are referred to the office of elections. The assistant chief aids the chief and helps administer the election from the time polls open at 6 a.m. to whenever the last ballot is counted after the polls close at 7 p.m.
Virginia election laws require electoral boards to split the chief and assistant positions between the two parties at each polling place “whenever practicable.” When it’s not possible to find a chief from one party and an assistant chief from the other, the law says that “nonaffiliated” election officers may be used to fill those positions.
Prince William County has so far recruited about 1,100 poll workers to staff its 103 precincts on Election Day, Olsen said. The current breakdown is 399 Democratic election officers, 402 Republican election officers, and about 300 nonaffiliated election officers, he said. Of those workers, each precinct will have a chief and assistant chief election officer assigned.
Through “precision” recruitment efforts, Olsen said his staff has “literally doubled” the pool of Republican election officers who have volunteered to serve in the upcoming election. He said just two years ago in 2020, there were 466 Democratic election officers and just 201 Republican election officers who served.
In order to “draw enough Republicans” this year, the office of elections sent “concentrated mailers that leaned Republican over the summer. We were very targeted to get to those numbers,” Olsen said.
“To do all that, and then to have the party coming in with a team of lawyers” was frustrating, Olsen said in an interview after the meeting.
“It’s the timing of it. It’s the lack of any actual recruitment. I mean, if you look at the number of officers, the Republican chair has not recruited more than 30 or 40 officers over the past year. We’ve recruited well over 200. We did that in the last 90 days,” Olsen said.
Olsen said the county Republican Committee has insisted that he assign about 30 people without sufficient election experience to chief or assistant chief positions at various precincts.
“But the trouble is that all the suggestions made are all people that really don't have any experience,” Olsen said, noting at the meeting that about 80% of the election officers the Republicans suggested for promotion to chief or assistant chief “had worked zero elections or one election.”
During the meeting, Daugherty objected to what he considers an insufficient number of Republican chief and assistant chief elections officers. In an effort to increase the number of Republicans serving in both roles, Daugherty said he called Republican election officers who had already been assigned to precincts to gauge their interest in instead serving as a chiefs or assistant chiefs at different precincts.
As a result of those calls, some election officers thought that their Election Day assignment had changed, Olsen said, noting that he had received three such calls from confused election officers.
“Contacting officers and telling them where their assignment is -- I’ve never seen that in 12 years. And that’s interfering with our ability to do the election. That’s partisan injection into nonpartisan officers who take an oath to go out to the polling place and do their job regardless of what the G--damn little letter is after their name,” Olsen said during the meeting. “So if you want to sue me, go ahead. I’ve certainly gone through many lawsuits over this past year.”
Olsen did not offer details about what lawsuits he was referring to.
Olsen said that in addition to recruiting new Republican election officers, he prioritized promoting experienced Republican election officers to higher ranks.
“We have increased our number of Republican chiefs by 25%. We’ve increased our number of assistant chiefs by 83% and increased the number of election equipment specialists by 60%,” Olsen said.
But he said that “the domain of assignments of officers and the decisions about who is a right fit for the job is one that the [county’s elections] office and the electoral board has -- and not the parties.”
The director of elections and the members of the electoral board bear the ultimate responsibility for conducting the election, not the party chairs, Olsen said.
“If the elections go bad because we have insufficient and inexperienced officers out there making big mistakes, the people at this table have to be accountable for that,” he said.
“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. And if that’s what the Republicans think that should be happening, I don’t buy it,” Scarborough agreed.
It is a sensitive time for election officers in the current climate, Olsen said. He said he’s been told that election officers are worried about security at polling places, including possible violence. He said that a Republican election officer told him that a poll watcher of her own party made her uncomfortable. “She said, ‘I feel like a criminal being watched.’”
Olsen said partisan tension “makes it hard for the election officers … It shouldn’t be a partisan thing. It’s about them trying to serve their community and the process.”
Olsen was hired following the resignation in April 2021 of former county registrar Michele White, who was indicted in September on two felonies and a misdemeanor relating to her official duties during the November 2020 elections. White was charged with corrupt conduct, making a false statement on a report and neglect of duty following an investigation by Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares’s office. Miyares (R), however, has so far refused to reveal the specific acts that led to the charges. White is scheduled to appear in court on Oct. 21.
Olsen said that he wasn’t planning to announce his resignation during the Oct. 7 meeting, but felt it was the right time. Olsen was hired as the county’s general registrar in late 2021 and will oversee only one general election.
“I am resigning after this election. God, because this is how the general registrars are treated when they are trying to do the right thing. My God, what happens when something goes wrong?” Olsen asked.
“The kind of pressure you’re putting on election officials, it’s going to have a negative effect overall. If you’re worried about what the partisan balance is at the precincts, it’s going to have a negative effect on a lot of officials right now that are suffering out there,” Olsen said. “I feel terrible having to leave and I don’t want to resign my post, but if I’m dead next year, I won't be a very good registrar anyway.”
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