Citing “debilitating stress,” Prince William County Electoral Officer Eric Olsen said on Friday he would step down after the Nov. 8 election. Olsen made the announcement at a heated county election board meeting in which tempers erupted over whether there would be an equal partisan split of chief executives and deputy chief electoral officers assigned to each of the 103 precincts. county elections.
Olsen, 46, said he had recently been diagnosed with heart disease and had to prioritize his health and could not continue to do his job in the current political climate.
“It’s not a good time to be an election official right now,” he said at the meeting, which took place on Friday, October 7, at the Old Manassas Courthouse. “I think there’s a legitimate fear of what might happen for people who are just trying to do their jobs.”
Olsen’s announcement came after Prince William County Republican Committee Chairman Denny Daugherty said during the public comment period 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 stations.
The local Republican committee also submitted a letter through its attorney on Thursday, Oct. 6 to the Elections Commission asking it to “act immediately” to appoint “designated party officials as chief or deputy electoral officers.” in the constituencies requested”.
After the meeting, Keith Scarborough, secretary to the board, said there would be no changes to assignments at this stage.
“We are proceeding with the missions that have already been done and announced. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve done everything we can to increase the number of Republicans who have been recruited and assigned,” he said.
Scarborough is one of two Democrats who sit on the three-member electoral board. The council will grow to two Republicans and one Democrat next year because the council’s partisan leanings must match that of the governor-elect, per Virginia law.
GOP opposes party imbalance between leader and deputy chief electoral officers
On Election Day, the Chief Electoral Officer assigned to each precinct’s polling station has the final say on all decisions in the precinct, unless matters are referred to the Elections Office. The deputy leader assists the leader and helps administer the election from when the polls open at 6 a.m. until each time the last ballot is counted after the polls close at 7 p.m.
Virginia election laws require election boards to split the leader and aide positions between the two parties at each polling place “to the extent practicable.” When it is not possible to find a leader of one party and a deputy leader of the other, the law states that “unaffiliated” election officials can be used to fill these positions.
Prince William County has so far recruited about 1,100 election workers to staff its 103 precincts on Election Day, Olsen said. The current breakdown is 399 Democratic poll workers, 402 Republican poll workers and about 300 unaffiliated poll workers, he said. Of these workers, each constituency will have a Chief and a Deputy Chief Electoral Officer.
Through “precise” recruiting efforts, Olsen said his staff had “literally doubled” the pool of Republican election officers who volunteered to serve in the upcoming election. He said just two years ago in 2020, there were 466 Democratic poll workers and just 201 Republican poll workers who served.
In an effort to “attract enough Republicans” this year, the Elections Office sent “concentrated Republican-leaning mailers over the summer. We were very targeted to come up with those numbers,” Olsen said.
“Doing all of this and then bringing the party in with a team of lawyers” was frustrating, Olsen said in an interview after the meeting.
” It is time. It is the absence of any real recruitment. I mean, if you look at the number of officers, the Republican president hasn’t recruited more than 30 or 40 officers in the last year. We’ve recruited over 200. We’ve done that in the last 90 days,” Olsen said.
Olsen said the county’s Republican committee insisted that he assign about 30 people without sufficient electoral experience to leadership or deputy leadership positions in various precincts.
“But the problem is that all of the suggestions made are all people who really have no experience,” Olsen said, noting at the meeting that about 80% of election officials that Republicans have suggested for promotion to the job. of leader or deputy leader “had worked zero election or one election.
During the meeting, Daugherty objected to what he sees as an insufficient number of Republican leaders and assistant election officers. In an effort to increase the number of Republicans serving in both roles, Daugherty said he called Republican election workers who had previously been assigned to precincts to gauge their interest in serving in the place of chiefs or deputy chiefs. in different constituencies.
As a result of those calls, some election officials thought their Election Day assignment had changed, Olsen said, noting that he had received three such calls from confused election officials.
“Contacting officers and telling them where their posting is – I’ve never seen this in 12 years. And it’s interfering with our ability to make the election. It’s a partisan injection into non-partisan officers taking oaths to go to the polls and do their job, whatever the fuckin’ little letter after their name is,” Olsen said at the meeting. “So if you want to sue me, go ahead. I have certainly been the subject of many lawsuits over the past year.
Olsen did not provide details of the lawsuits he was referring to.
Olsen said that in addition to recruiting new Republican poll workers, he prioritized promoting experienced Republican poll workers to higher ranks.
“We have increased our number of Republican leaders by 25%. We increased our number of deputy chiefs by 83% and increased the number of election equipment specialists by 60%,” Olsen said.
But he said “the area of officer postings and decisions about who is the right fit for the job is one that the [county’s elections] office and the electoral council has – and not the parties.
The chief electoral officer and electoral board members bear ultimate responsibility for the conduct of elections, not party chairs, Olsen said.
“If the election goes badly because we have insufficient and inexperienced officers who make big mistakes, the people around this table must be held accountable,” he said.
“I really can’t believe anyone thinks it’s a good idea to pull an experienced leader out of a constituency and plug in someone who’s never worked on an election. And if that’s what Republicans think should happen, I’m not buying it,” Scarborough agreed.
It’s a tricky time for election officials in the current climate, Olsen said. He said he had been told that poll workers were concerned about security at polling stations, including possible violence. He said a Republican election worker told him a poll watcher from his own party was making her feel uncomfortable. “She said, ‘I feel like a criminal under surveillance.'”
Olsen said partisan tension “makes it difficult for election officials… It shouldn’t be a partisan thing. It’s about them trying to serve their community and the process.
Olsen was hired following the April 2021 resignation of former County Registrar Michele White, who was charged in September on two felonies and a misdemeanor related to his official duties during the November 2020 election. White was charged with corrupt conduct, misrepresentation on a report and dereliction of duty following an investigation by the office of the Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares. Miyares (R), however, has so far refused to reveal the specific acts that led to the charges. White is due in court on October 21.
Olsen said he had no intention of announcing his resignation at the Oct. 7 meeting, but felt it was the right time. Olsen was hired as the county’s Registrar General in late 2021 and will oversee only one general election.
“I am resigning after this election. God, because that’s how Registrars General are treated when they try to do the right thing. My God, what happens when something goes wrong? asked Olsen.
“The kind of pressure you put on election officials will have an overall negative effect. If you’re worried about the partisan balance in the precinct, it’s going to have a negative effect on a lot of public servants right now who are suffering there,” Olsen said. “I feel bad about having to leave and I don’t want to resign from my job, but if I die next year I won’t be a very good registrar anyway.”
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