In the wake of the highly unusual and divisive 2020 elections, I used this column to ask some questions about some of the irregularities and bizarre aspects surrounding the Trump-Biden race and its aftermath. As a teacher since 1987, I see a big part of my job is both asking good questions and also coaching my students to be inquisitive too.
A high school friend of mine seemed to take umbrage at my curiosity surrounding the 2020 voting and suggested that, if I were truly uneasy at the state of our elections and republic, I volunteer to be a poll watcher in the future. Plus, as a history major from William and Mary and holding a Virginia teacher’s license to teach history, I thought the poll-watching would be both a good professional and civic opportunity.
In that spirit, as the Old Dominion geared up for its fall 2021 elections that caught national attention, I did volunteer to observe some voting in coordination with the Youngkin campaign. That involved attending about a two-hour zoom training session. (After the election I learned that the Youngkin campaign mobilized some 15,000 volunteers, of whom about 3,000 were poll watchers at precincts across the state.)
With the Democrats holding power in both the Virginia General Assembly and Governor’s Mansion the past few years, they instituted an early voting scheme whereby in-person voting began on September 17, offering an unprecedented forty-five days of early voting. To my knowledge, that is the earliest that such voting has ever been conducted by any state in the Union.
The Roanoke County registrar’s office oversees elections in that county. The office used to be in the County Administration Building on Route 419, along with many other government offices. However, because of Covid and the need for more space for early voting, the registrar’s office later moved to a vacant school building at 900 Chestnut St. in Vinton. As a result, the office that used to share space in a busy facility with many people coming and going now has a building all to itself.
During that early voting period, I was told three interesting insights: 1. The Roanoke County registrar–that is, the official responsible for overseeing the county’s elections and its voting apparatus–is Ms. Anna Cloeter (pronounced “Claytor.”) 2. The Chairperson of the Roanoke County Democratic Committee is Ms. Susan Cloeter. 3. Susan Cloeter is Anna Cloeter’s mother.
I do not know about you, but I found it highly unusual that the official in charge of elections is the child of the leader of a partisan political group…of the same jurisdiction. Wanting to be sure I had my facts straight, I reached out to a long-term, elected official in Roanoke County to verify that the two were mother-daughter. Instead of being able to verify that, the office-holder told me he was shocked to learn of that relationship. He had never heard anything about it, even though he is an upper-echelon Roanoke County leader. A second official I reached out to verified that the two are indeed mother-daughter.
Let me make crystal-clear: This is not illegal, nor is anyone accusing anyone of malfeasance or impropriety. It just seemed, well, unseemly.
In recent years, Roanoke County has become increasingly Republican. For example, Virginia’s senior US senator is Mark Warner, the richest man in the Senate. But even with his spectacular wealth, he failed to carry a single Roanoke County precinct in his 2014 re-election campaign. Last fall, the underdog Youngkin gave the heavy-favorite McAuliffe a solid 65%-33% thumping. So, in this district that seems to be getting redder and redder each election cycle, I was wondering what other residents would think of this connection, or if they even knew of it.
Off and on since the fall I have asked some County voters if they knew about this relationship. The people I asked are in their 40s or above, follow the news regularly, and are actively involved in community life. With only one exception, all were unaware of the mother-daughter connection and expressed utter surprise.
To give a fair, robust picture of this situation for our readers and to be fair to both women, I asked them a few questions and also if they would like to make a statement to Roanoke County citizens who might find the current set-up questionable or odd. Anna Cloeter the registrar did respond by email, but Susan Cloeter has not as of publishing time. Some of the registrar’s comments and answers are below.
“I (…) am not sure what the fact that the County’s election results continue to favor Republican candidates has to do with my relationship to Susan Cloeter [her mother], just as I couldn’t tell you what possible bearing it might have on the facts that the County’s voter registration numbers and turnout have improved over the years I’ve held this position. I take my duty to ensure that all qualified voters of Roanoke County have the opportunity to register to vote, exercise their fundamental right to vote, and have their votes counted as cast in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America very seriously. Partisanship does not come into play in my work as an election administrator; I believe that’s best left to policymakers and the elected officials who write our laws.”
Regarding the mother-daughter relationship: “Yes, I am related to Susan Cloeter. I am also related to the 8 other citizens of the Commonwealth with whom I share a last name and, as a person born and raised in Roanoke County (and a longtime resident of the same), I don’t know how or why that would surprise anyone.”
“The fact that Susan Cloeter is the outgoing chair of the Roanoke County Democratic Committee is, as you noted, not “illegal” and not something about which I need to make a statement. Please see paragraph 5 of Virginia Code § 24.2-110 for further information.”
Paragraph 5 of the Virginia Code clearly seeks to prohibit nepotism between the electoral board and registrar. It reads: “The electoral board shall not appoint to the office of general registrar any person who is the spouse of an electoral board member or any person, or the spouse of any person, who is the parent, grandparent, sibling, child, or grandchild of an electoral board member.”
As a teacher of history and literature, I know that “context is crucial.” Paragraph 6 follows: “No general registrar shall serve as the chairman of a political party or other officer of a state, local or district level political party committee. No general registrar shall serve as a paid or volunteer worker in the campaign of a candidate for nomination or election to an office filled by election in whole or in part by the qualified voters of his jurisdiction (….)”
Clearly, paragraph 6 seeks to forbid blatant political partisans from serving as registrars, a common-sense precaution.
In sum, Paragraph 5 proves there is no illegality involved. However, with the strictures against nepotism and partisanship, some Roanoke County residents may easily feel qualms about a relationship that may be seen as encroaching on the spirit of the law. At least that is what a number of the people I spoke with expressed concerns about.
Going into the elections, I had no idea how a registrar was chosen, to whom they were accountable, the years of their terms, etc. If I was that uniformed as a history major and social studies teacher, I reasoned that most laymen would also not know these details either. Ms. Anna Cloeter explained: “See Virginia Code § 24.2-109. I was hired by the Roanoke County Electoral Board following the retirement of Judy Stokes, who had previously worked as Morgan Griffith’s legislative aide. I was appointed to fill the two remaining years of Mrs. Stokes’ term in March 2017 and the Electoral Board appointed me to serve a new four year term starting in June 2019. I report to the Roanoke County Electoral Board, which reviews my performance annually, and the Virginia Department of Elections.”
For the record, Morgan Griffith is a Republican who now represents Virginia’s Ninth Congressional District in the House of Representatives.
When I asked Cloeter if the registrar is an employee of the County or State, she replied with a terse: “Please see Virginia Code §§ 24.2-111, 122. See also Va. AG Op. 19-053, 2020.”
Overall, my few hours of poll watching and interfacing with Ms. Cloeter and the registrar’s staff was an eye-opening and at times disconcerting experience. I hope to share more with you later. Stay tuned.
– Scott Dreyer