State requests ‘timely action’
No date set for hearing, but Board of Elections asks court to remove Hopewell election officials in wake of next month’s polls
The State Board of Elections has formally petitioned a Hopewell judge to remove two members of the courtappointed city Electoral Board over claims of malfeasance in hiring the general registrar and for their vote to approve an illegal ballot for the November councilmanic elections.
In filing the petitions Tuesday, the SBE claimed the actions of David W. Silvestro and Herbert F. Townes Jr. “led to the failure of the Hopewell Electoral Board to adequately oversee” the registrar’s office.
The petitions, unanimously approved by the state board last month, said Silvestro and Townes failed to follow state Freedom of Information Act requirements for open meetings and “voted to produce ballots not in agreement with Virginia Ballot Standards.”
The petitions were filed in Hopewell Circuit Court Tuesday by the state attorney general’s office on the SBE’s behalf. At their monthly meeting earlier in the day in Richmond, the three SBE members signed off on the petitions and sent them to the attorney general for filing.
No date has been set for a hearing, but the SBE asked the court to “timely appoint new individuals to the [HEB] to ensure the fair, uniform and efficient administration of elections in Hopewell.”
City voters go to the polls Nov. 6 to elect four City Council members, and representatives to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
The third member of the HEB, chairman Patrick Washington, was not included in the removal.
Silvestro and Townes have not yet filed responses to the petitions. Silvestro said earlier that he was weighing his options, and Townes indicated a willingness to contest the SBE’s decision.
Last month, state election officials summoned the HEB members and General Registrar Yolanda W. Stokes to Richmond to explain their actions over the Aug. 21 vote by the local board to approve a council ballot draft with the names of three of the eight council candidates in capital letters. State election laws require that all ballot names appear uniformly to avoid any appearance of preferential treatment.
But in that August meeting, Silvestro and Townes voted for the ballot with the capital letters, claiming they thought that was how the candidates wanted their names to appear. They also said they were aware of threatened lawsuits against the city by those whose names appeared in all caps and those whose names did not.
The three candidates
- two incumbents and a challenger - denied seeking preferential treatment and said they printed their names on their applications in block letters for legibility purposes. They also denied threatening suit.
Silvestro and Townes maintained they thought they were voting in August to get official direction from the state over the appearance of the candidates’ names on the ballot, not the ballot itself, despite video evidence shown of a contentious atmosphere during that meeting and Stokes clearly explaining that they were voting on the ballot.
Stokes maintained she never intended to have the names appear in all capital letters, but she was only acting on the direction of her direct employers, the local Electoral Board.
Silvestro and Townes were also cited in the SBE petition over their actions last spring in hiring a new general registrar prior to
the June primaries. The longtime registrar had retired, and the person named as her successor quit after a month, forcing Hopewell into scramble mode in order to administer the primaries.
Elections officials from around the area stepped in to help, and one outside official was tapped to temporarily hold the position until a successor was named.
According to records, the board voted in closed session - an FOIA violation - to hire a registrar. But that person later withdrew and the board eventually turned to Stokes, a former Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority member with experience in third-party voter registration processes. The June primaries went as scheduled with no major glitches.
During the Sept. 20 testimony before the SBE, Washington maintained that Silvestro and Townes acted as a bloc to keep him out of the
loop on HEB business and meeting schedules. Silvestro and Townes both denied that, adding that Washington purposefully kept himself distanced from them.
Silvestro and Townes are the two Democratic representatives on the board, and Washington is the lone Republican. In according with state law, the party affiliation of the sitting governor is considered the majority on local and state election boards.
Local electoral board members are appointed by the locality’s circuit court. Silvestro has been on the HEB since last March, and his term was set to end in 2021. Townes has been on the board since 2014, and his term will be up in 2020.
Washington’s term is set to end next year.