On the eve of last year's presidential election, the Fairfax County registrar's office was in disarray. An inexperienced staff was deluged by absentee ballot applications, tens of thousands of new voters were being added to the rolls and morale had plummeted over the leadership style of the registrar.

Some election workers complained that Diane McIntyre, a Republican, was in charge of an office that failed to process many new voter forms and gave some callers incorrect information. McIntyre's supporters said the complaints were partisan. The county's three-member Electoral Board was at war over what to do.

The stakes were high: As a swing county and Virginia's largest jurisdiction, Fairfax found itself in the spotlight in the hot race between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

The election went smoothly, officials agree. But other changes in the past year have made the office, by most accounts, a happier and better-run place. McIntyre was fired after the election for poor job performance and replaced. Jacquelynne Harris, hired from Albemarle County, is a professional election official who says she is not political and doesn't even vote in primaries. Harris won't reveal her political leanings, just to make sure no one accuses her of partisanship.

"I probably take it to an extreme, but I won't attend a political event," said Harris, 44. She now runs elections in a county of 611,183 voters, about 10 times the number in Albemarle.

"Fairfax was way behind the curve in hiring a nonpartisan registrar," said Margaret K. Luca, the Electoral Board's secretary. Luca said the office is well prepared for the Nov. 8 election, now that voters have had a few years to become familiar with electronic voting machines. There's a governor's race but no presidential race, meaning lower turnout than last year and less room for chaos.

Election officials, with the blessing of the Board of Supervisors, also have resolved a nagging labor issue in the registrar's office. Full-time workers have always been a mix of Democrats and Republicans hired over the course of shifting gubernatorial administrations in Richmond. But they had no job protection. One elderly worker was fired for insubordination days before last year's election. The worker said her firing was retribution for a comment she had made to a reporter about poor morale. The workers, who number about a dozen, now have the same status as other county employees, with rights to file grievances and other job protections.

-- Lisa Rein

Fairfax County election worker Rebecca McKenna helps Mesfin Hagos register to vote last fall. The office was plagued with difficulties, including registering tens of thousands of new voters.