Virginia county stumbles in the first election after its conspiracy-fueled staff exodus

BUCKINGHAM, Va. — Seven months after election conspiracy theories consumed the community here and drove the entire election staff to quit, Buckingham County struggled to report its results in Tuesday's elections.

Local results were posted just before 10 a.m. Wednesday, making Buckingham the last county in the state to report unofficial tallies.

Unofficial election results are typically reported online within hours of polls closing, after which it takes days to canvass ballots and confirm official results. The missing results Tuesday night spurred concerns and frustration in the community, residents said in interviews.

“It’s unusual for a county not to report any results over 12 hours after the polls closed, and more unusual to not release any kind of statement relating to the delay,” said David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research that helps support election officials.

Local officials did not immediately respond to questions about the late results. Andrea Gaines, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Elections, said the county struggled to input results.

"Buckingham County had some issues with the spreadsheet being used to upload their results. Their Election Day precinct results are all in now, and they are currently entering their early voting and absentee totals," she said in an email to NBC News.

Buckingham County, Va.'s water tower. (Matt Eich for NBC News file)
Buckingham County, Va.'s water tower. (Matt Eich for NBC News file)

Earlier this year, local Republicans pushed baseless allegations of voter fraud, which eventually drove four people to quit their jobs in Buckingham County's elections department. The conflict shook the community and threatened future elections: Many longtime poll workers said they would not work the polls again. A resident who had made claims of voter fraud was hired as a replacement registrar, then fired shortly after amid controversy.

A third registrar, Ginger Chiesa, took the reins this spring, assuming the difficult task of getting the county's voting apparatus back up and running. Seven months later, under her leadership, polls opened across the county, and many hoped the community might be ready to move forward from the conflict.

Voting ran smoothly throughout early voting and on Tuesday, election workers across the county said, even as new poll workers worked to learn new processes, troubleshoot equipment and remember all the rules.

One poll worker, serving as the chief in her polling place for the first time, called the elections office with a question: Are dogs allowed in the polling site? Off the phone, she joked with a friend who had voted that she had been in tears at 5:45 a.m. preparing to open the polling site.

But after the polls closed, voters hoping to check out the unofficial election night results online would be sorely disappointed.

“When I woke up this morning and saw that Buckingham had zero precincts reporting, my first thought was, I reported at 7:15, why can’t my team get that recognition?” said Bob Abbott, a poll worker who served as chief election officer in the Georgia Creek Precinct. “The election officials at Georgia Creek deserved to be rewarded for their amazing teamwork and hard work. And now we’re going to get questions instead.”

Abbott, a disabled military veteran, said he was exhausted and in pain after a long day working the polls.

The missing results felt like a “kick in the nuts,” he said. So at 6:32 a.m., he emailed the electoral board and registrar to resign his post as an election officer. He’d planned to resign after the results were canvassed but was too frustrated to wait.

Paul Garrett, a candidate for the county Board of Supervisors and a former county election worker who quit his job this year, said early Wednesday the missing results — and lack of information — were disheartening.

“They won’t tell anybody anything,” he said. “It’s a mess.”

After 10 a.m., he learned that he was leading his race in the unofficial results.

Garrett, a retired schoolteacher, said he ran for office because of what happened to the elections department in the spring. It would have been better to win on election night, he said, without watching his county struggle to run its elections.

“Of course I’m happy with it,” he said of his win. “But in the midst of all this stuff that’s going on now, it’s going to be another hotbed for controversy.”

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