By Carol Vaughn —
Accomack County Voter Registrar Patricia White is retiring June 30 after working in the voter registration office 33 years.
The registrar is the only constitutional officer in Virginia localities who is appointed, not elected.
This is to ensure fair and open government, since the person overseeing voting and elections should not be an elected official.
Instead, the registrar is appointed every four years by the local electoral board, whose members themselves are appointed by the circuit court judge from nominations submitted by the two main political parties.
The general registrar, White’s formal title, is responsible for supervising registration of voters, maintaining voter registration records, supervising registrar’s office employees, and coordinating elections, including training and supervising poll workers.
The general registrar typically is the public face of the local electoral process.
White was appointed general registrar when Ann Loukx retired in 2013, after being hired in 1988 as a part-time assistant registrar and becoming deputy registrar in 1991.
Practices in the office have changed a lot since White started work in February 1988.
At that time, a person had to register to vote by appearing in person in front of the registrar or assistant registrar.
The office had just two employees who worked there, the registrar and the assistant registrar.
There also were field registrars in various locations throughout the county. A person could go to the field registrar’s house and register — “again, all of the registrations were done in person, along with the fact that you had to raise your right hand and swear to the oath that was read to you by the registrar, then sign your application,” White said.
“Now most folks register online or at the DMV and we never see them,” she said.
Of course, there were no computers used when White started work; applications were completed by hand and registrars had to determine in which precinct a voter should be, based on their description of where they lived, including route numbers and landmarks because Accomack County 911 addresses had not yet been implemented.
A typed precinct card was then mailed to Richmond, where the state board of elections entered the voter’s information into their system and then returned the card to the Accomack office.
“I saw the first computer come into the office when ‘motor voter’ began in 1996, which eliminated in-person registrations,” White said.
When White started work, the county was using AVM voting machines, large metal machines in which a voter cast his or her vote by pushing down a lever under the candidate’s name.
Then the change was made to touchscreen voting and then to the optical scan system used today.
Paper poll books were used by poll workers to look up voters’ names then; today the information is accessed on a laptop computer.
The voter registrar’s office has moved three times during White’s tenure.
The office had to move when a county building where it, along with the magistrate’s office and juvenile and domestic relations court, was housed was demolished to make way for construction of the new General District court building.
The voter registrar was moved into the building next door, where the Accomac town office is now.
“That move proved to be quite entertaining and somewhat scary when the wrecking ball came in to knock the old building down,” White said, adding, “In our office was an old vault, where we stored the voter cards. What was entertaining was, they never could demolish that vault; the whole building was down and the vault stood up strong. They had to get a crane to come in to remove the vault. Needless to say the earth often shook under our feet during the demolition, literally.”
White often says if she were to stop and think about the memories of her years in the registrar’s office, “I could write a book.”
If she had to choose just one, “it would be all the wonderful people who worked the elections over the years,” she said, noting some election officials have worked for years, “and I can say everyone who has worked takes pride in serving their community on Election Day.”
Asked about accomplishments in which she takes pride, White said, “It’s humbling to know that you have helped to conduct a successful election each time we have one and that the integrity of each voter is held to the highest standards. There are so many working parts that most voters will never know even happen before, during, and after every election, no matter how big or small the turnout.
“I guess what I feel I’m most proud of is the last year, 2020. In 2019 we knew that early voting was going to begin by the November 2020 election and we had to find a larger office or find somewhere in the county to have several satellite sites.
“The solution was to move where we are now and secure the funding from the Board of Supervisors for the renovations.
“So from fall of 2019 through November 2020, we conducted four elections (all with COVID restrictions and challenges), moved our office, and saw over 6,000 voters come through this office to early vote prior to the November election — may not sound like much, but when you finish a primary election the end of June and move an entire office by the first week in July and never skip a beat that is something to be proud of.”
Among the challenges facing the registrar are the many election laws passed by the General Assembly in the last several years, which change the way the office does business.
“For those of us who have seen how elections have changed over the years, it can be challenging sometimes to adapt, when perhaps you may not agree that some of the change really benefits the voters. However, a registrar/director of elections takes an oath and swears to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Commonwealth, so that is what we do and I have done this with pride,” White said.
With the advent of social media, voting seems to be more popular than it used to be, White said, adding, “which is a good thing until people begin to doubt what you do and perhaps believe they need to micromanage when they may not fully understand what it takes to do this job.”
The next registrar will need to be able to adapt quickly at times “to issues that may affect how voters are best served and deal with the knowledge that you are the person who will be held responsible if things go south,” according to White.
The main piece of advice she has is “to always be aware of what you do, the importance of what it means to maintain and direct elections for the county and to hold on to the integrity” of being in charge of elections.
Asked about her retirement plans, White said she plans to take some time “to get accustomed to what ‘retired’ looks like” and very much looks forward to seeing “just where God plans on leading me next!”