By Andrew Arnold
Lexington resident Mark Reed decided a couple years ago that he wanted to try to change the way school board members get picked.
Since the days of segregation and Jim Crow, Lexington City Council appointed the board’s members. Reed said he thought voters should have the power to decide who served on the school board.
So, in January 2022, Reed said he learned that putting a referendum before voters was the way to change city law. It wasn’t easy.
That’s because state law requires that proponents of a referendum must obtain signatures of 10% of the voting population in a particular jurisdiction.
The trouble is, in Lexington, nobody has an accurate count for how many eligible voters there are.
As of March 29, there were 727 people listed on the voting rolls who have not cast ballots in recent elections.
Office of Elections constrained by time and lack of staff
Jackie Harris, director of elections, said her office routinely tries to confirm whether registered voters still live in Lexington. She periodically sends out a postcard when there is a change in the voter’s registration or redistricting. In some cases, the U.S. Postal Service kicks it back to her office because the voter doesn’t live at a particular address anymore.
But it doesn’t stop there. The registrar is then required by state law to notify the Virginia Department of Elections, which tries again by sending another mailing to the voters in question. If they fail to respond in 30 days, they are placed on the “inactive voter” list.
Again, it’s not over. They get another chance to show up in the next two federal election cycles, or four years. If they don’t, then they are taken off the voter rolls.
Lexington’s total number of registered voters was 4,114, including the 727 “inactive” voters, as of late March.
For Reed, that meant he had to gather a little over 400 signatures to get his referendum on the ballot last November.
“It’s not an easy process to knock on hundreds of doors,” he said. “It takes a lot of time.”
Harris said she’s been trying to get the voter rolls updated, but she’s leaving the job in June.
The biggest problem, she said, is a lack of time and staff to stay on top of the voter rolls. There’s only one other employee in the registrar’s office. Harris spent her two years on the job digitizing the voter records, which was complicated and time-consuming.
Harris said if she had the funding, she would send a letter to all registered voters in Lexington asking them to confirm their basic information.
High bar exists to get on ballots
Reed and a small group of supporters of the referendum struggled to get the signatures they needed. Last April, Reed said, he did not think they were going to make it by the July deadline. He said he felt like he had already talked to everyone he knew and was not having much luck knocking on doors.
“It was really depressing,” he said. “You become kind of a villain or an outcast.”
Reed’s luck turned around when then-City Council Member Dennis Ayers said he was worried that “crazy people” would run for the school board if voters were given the power to select them.
Reed said Ayers’ comment upset many people, and support for the petition came pouring in.
“Eventually, over the last few weeks, we surpassed the amount of signatures that we needed to get,” he said. “But without Ayers’ comments, I just don’t think we would’ve gotten it done.”