Virginia’s busiest elections office, which will compile vote tallies for hundreds of thousands of Fairfax County ballots Nov. 4, has struggled for years with infighting and high staff turnover, according to interviews, e-mails and documents obtained by The Washington Post.
The discord is casting a pall over the office tasked with protecting the integrity of elections in Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction, prompting calls for improvement from top county officials. Some critics say the turmoil adds to the challenge of training precinct workers to use new, more customer-friendly voting machines and implement a statewide voter ID law on Election Day.
Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, said she and County Executive Edward L. Long Jr. “have done everything that we can do within our authority to try to effect changes and address morale issues within the office.”
But the county does not oversee the Elections Office, even though it funds most of the agency’s nearly $4 million annual budget. The office is overseen by a three-member Electoral Board appointed by the county’s circuit court judges.
Board Secretary Brian Schoeneman, a Republican, said the board has ordered a host of changes to address problems identified in a report commissioned by the county last year and to try to ease tension between office employees and General Registrar Cameron Quinn.
Among them: hiring a management coach for Quinn, bringing in an additional senior-level administrator, hiring more workers and consolidating some departments to minimize confusion.
Quinn said the morale problems, which she described as “hurtful,” will not hinder the office’s performance on Election Day. “We have an office of good professionals,” said Quinn, a Republican and former secretary of the State Board of Elections. “They may be distracted when it doesn’t matter, but when it does matter, they get over it.”
But Schoeneman said he is concerned that residents will believe otherwise and vowed “to do everything” he can to stop that perception.
There have been five general registrars in the county Elections Office during the past decade. Some were forced out, and others left in frustration, documents and interviews show.
“In a nutshell, it’s chaos,” said Randy Creller, who, as the county’s chief liaison between the unionized staff and Fairfax officials, has fielded complaints from workers in the Elections Office.
The county-commissioned consultant’s report was completed in October 2013 but never released to the public. It found “considerable anger and confusion” among the agency’s 28 workers, a “negative cycle” that the consultants said has caused poor organization and bad customer service.
The Post obtained a copy of the report, which was based on interviews with past and current employees.
“A number of Fairfax residents have lost confidence in the Office of Elections,” the report said. “It will be difficult to attract and retain quality staff in the future if the perceived management problems persist.”
The new, $98,000-a-year chief operating officer position was filled in January by Robert G. Rathbun, whom Schoeneman described as “a breath of fresh air.”
Rathbun is tasked with improving day-to-day operations inside the office, which Schoeneman said is understaffed in some areas and disorganized in others, leading some managers and low-ranking staff to put in long days. Some workers have filed for as many as 60 overtime hours per week, records show.
But it can be hard to turn around an office that for years has been mired in internal politics.
Some elections employees say the discord stems from partisan differences; the county increasingly leans Democratic, and the Electoral Board has a Republican majority.
In 2012, the year after Quinn took over, the Fairfax Democratic Party sued her and several current and former Electoral Board members over what the plaintiffs argued were politically motived restrictions that kept observers inside polling places from answering questions from voters that could help them understand their rights.
Both sides now agree that observers can talk to voters about anything short of instructing them how to vote. But there is still disagreement over how many volunteers from each party can serve as county election officers at polling stations.
Separately, Schoeneman said, the Electoral Board ordered an investigation into several employee complaints about Quinn, including accusations that she misused her county credit card, improperly recorded her travel expenses and left relevant staff out of personnel decisions. All the complaints were deemed unfounded.
Creller said workers in the office have complained that Quinn is hiring Republican friends who have little experience in coordinating an election. The tension has driven out some veteran workers, he said.
“They’ve done a bunch of things that are right on the ethical line,” Creller said about what he called partisan hiring.
Quinn, noting that her staff includes former Democratic activists, said she has hired only qualified workers. “If I was trying anything partisan, they’d all be screaming about that,” she said.
Edgardo Cortes, head of Virginia’s Department of Elections, said Quinn’s expertise “is pretty comprehensive” when it comes to election laws.
“A lot of being a registrar is managing the process,” said Cortes, who led the Fairfax office from 2009 to 2011. “It’s the knowledge of elections and the process of keeping everything moving. . . . A lack of either one of those factors could certainly have an impact.”