In a 2-1 vote, the Republican majority on the Lynchburg Electoral Board voted Thursday to appoint technology manager Daniel Pense as the new general registrar after current registrar Christine Gibbons’ term ends at the end of the month.
The meeting was standing room only and held in the city council chambers due to the large interest. The chair asked numerous times for attendants to hold applause after each public statement. Even after the vote, people did not filter out, with nearly all attendees staying through the entire meeting, including other agenda items.
Secretary Betty Gibbs and Vice Chair Steve Troxel, both Republicans, voted for Pense, while Chair David Neumeyer, a Democrat, voted against hiring him.
“It is my belief that our obligation is to consider the registrar we have,” Neumeyer said before the vote. (Disclosure: Neumeyer is a member of our community advisory board, but board members have no role in news decisions; see our policy).
Gibbons was told on May 30 via letter that she would not be reappointed when her term ended on June 30. (See our previous story here.)
According to Virginia Code 24.2-110, registrars hold office for a four-year term, “and each fourth year thereafter and continue in office until a successor is appointed and qualifies.” It is traditional for a registrar’s contract to be renewed at the end of the term as long as their reviews have been positive. Since beginning her term in 2018, Gibbons has received an annual review. Her last review was July 2022. All of her reviews have been positive according to Neumeyer and Sherayko.
However, the code does not specifically state anything about registrar reappointment, which has caused some debate over the interpretation.
Former Chair Carolyn Sherayko, a Democrat, resigned in March protesting the board’s decision to hire a new registrar, calling it a “coordinated attack” against Gibbons.
The electoral board has been accused of ousting registrars for political reasons before. In 1995, Linda Arnold was awarded $150,000 by a jury after she filed a lawsuit against two Republican board members believing that she had been wrongly dismissed. Arnold had served as the registrar for 12 years.
Six years later, a jury awarded $187,000 to former assistant registrars Inez Sales and Debra Miller who were let go shortly after Arnold. During their trial, evidence in the case showed a timeline dating back to early 1994 in which several high-ranking Republicans were gathering information and meeting in secret to discuss how to oust Arnold.
According to a resume provided to Cardinal News, Pense has served as an executive director at Morgan Stanley, a vice president at Credit Suisse and most recently at Esprow as a products and strategic solutions manager. Though neither the board nor Pense say he identifies with a specific political party, Neumeyer said Wednesday that one of Pense’s references was the husband of the Lynchburg Republican Party chair.
Troxel spoke highly of Pense’s skillset, stating that he believed Pense was a great fit for the registrar’s office already.
“People who are highly talented can move sideways and do an amazing job,” he said. “I am very pleased that we have asked Dan to come on.”
Troxel said the board received 33 applications for the registrar position, with one application coming from as far as Africa.
“I thank our HR department for getting the word out,” he joked.
The pool came down to four applicants, including Gibbons, who has served as registrar since 2018.
The board took a moment to thank Gibbons for her years of service, in which she received a standing ovation from meeting attendees and the board.
Gibbons took to the podium during public comments to read the letter she gave to the board during her interview on May 12 in which she asked for her term to be renewed at the end of June. In the letter she said that she believed she had served her role in a “non-partisan manner in the face of relentless attacks on my character and neutrality in office.”
“I feel like I have been attacked for the last five years that I have been in this role by people even in this room and in previous board meetings who have brought up question after question after questions,” Gibbons said after reading. “Not once did I ask for police presence to be [at a meeting]. Not once did I have concern even when a sign was put in front of my home that not only affected me, but my family.”
Several police officers were present at Thursday’s meeting. Gibbs, the board secretary, wrote a letter to the city council on May 5 saying that she was concerned about the safety of the board after public comments in recent meetings left her feeling unsafe. While Cardinal News could not confirm threats targeted toward specific members of the board, Troxel and Neumeyer said that the board had received emails from the public saying that they also were concerned about the intensity of the comments at electoral board meetings.
In October 2020, a sign was placed on Gibbons’ lawn that read “Christine Gibbons Belongs In Jail. Lock Her Up.” While no charges were filed or investigation completed, Gibbons said she believed it was retaliation for her handling of absentee ballots.
The Lynchburg Republican Party Committee accused Gibbons that same month of illegally scanning absentee ballots without a Republican representative present. The case went to court but was dismissed by a judge who ruled that Gibbons hadn’t deliberately violated the law.
A Republican representative was supposed to be there that morning for the ballot scanning but had emailed Gibbons at 6 a.m. saying he could not come due to an emergency.
Gibbons and Neumeyer both said that Gibbons was asked by Troxel during the interview if she was seeking counseling for the incident, which violates compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Troxel said that none of the other applicants were asked about their mental health.
On Thursday, the intensity remained high once the floor was opened for public comments as reactions to the new appointment were mixed. There were jeers, amens and objections to people who stayed at the microphone longer than the allowed three minutes.
James Arnold, the husband of former Lynchburg registrar Linda Arnold, questioned the board’s intentions behind replacing Gibbons.
“What are the grounds or reasons for replacing [the] qualified, well-meaning great registrar we have?” Arnold asked the board. “This is not going to be the last thing you hear about this matter.”
Sheron Simpson asked the board what Pense had to offer that Gibbons did not.
“I know how critical the job of registrar, assistant registrars, and office personnel is,” she said. “I know you read a whole plethora of things [Pense] has done, places he’s been, but what does he know about Lynchburg? How will he operate that facility, so we don’t go backwards?”
Troxel said that while out-of-state candidates had applied, Pense was not one of them and is a Lynchburg resident who works remotely.
Kelly Ward asked what happened to Lynchburg in her remarks.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she said. “We are becoming Buckingham County. We will be on the NBC Nightly News. This is not fair. This is not transparent.”
Earlier this year, Buckingham County registrar Lindsey Taylor resigned after local Republicans accused her of voter fraud, which was never proven. Three other staff members quit shortly after, leaving the county without a functioning registrar’s office. Since Taylor’s departure, Buckingham has had two different registrars.
Luis Gutierrez, a self-described proud Republican, was fired by the board after 19 days on the job because of falsifications on his resume, according to the Virginia Mercury. According to the county’s website, Ginger L. Chiesa is serving as the interim registrar.
Other comments were more heated.
The Rev. Alex Cunningham said Pense was a candidate “they knew nothing about.”
“I hope Ms. Christine sues you,” he said to the board. He then turned to Gibbons. “Sue them because they are not being straight up with us. They have an agenda.”
Joshua Pratt, who identified himself as a representative of Virginians for America First, a group dedicated to “stopping Virginia’s slide into the totalitarian abyss” and focusing on election integrity, according to its website, said he didn’t know if the support of Gibbons was “politically motivated.”
“I see here representatives from the Lynchburg Democratic Party. I see representatives of the NAACP… in support of Christine,” he said. “I have to ask myself, is this now political? Why would they be so interested in maintaining her on the board?”
Neumeyer stopped Pratt, saying that he’d exceeded his three minutes to speak. But Troxel said that since Pratt had identified himself as representing an organization, he was allowed two more minutes. Pratt then turned from the podium and raised his fist toward the back of the room.
When he finished, he walked up the aisle raising his fist two more times saying “Power to the people,” which was met with protests from some members of the audience, with one woman saying it was “disrespectful.”
But some took time in their remarks to thank Gibbons for serving.
“I’m a new person working in elections and I’ve had a great experience,” election volunteer Jenny Hall said to Gibbons. “Your hard work is noticed at least by me and all of the staff.”
Councilman Marty Misjuns also thanked Gibbons for her work, as well as the board. He said he was there as a resident of Ward III and not as a council member.
“Whoever put that sign in your yard? That is absolutely, totally unacceptable,” he said to Gibbons. “I want to make that clear and I’m sorry for that.”
Malcolm Miles took a different approach. He said if people really wanted to understand what the registrar does, they should volunteer just as he did, saying that he saw so many passionate people involved who worked hard to make sure the election ran smoothly.
“With all the tension in the world, I wanted to see for myself what all the noise was about in terms of election interference,” Miles said. “I can tell you that this election was incredibly well-run. … I think everyone who has hard positions should volunteer at the poll once. You’ll see nothing is happening at that poll that you need to be concerned about. … I don’t know anything about the politics. I just know what I saw.”
Pense will begin his four-year term on July 1. It also means that two new deputy registrars will be hired by Pense; state law says that the terms of deputies cannot exceed the one of the current registrar.