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FFP exclusive: Q&A with Fredericksburg General Registrar Jessica B. Atkinson

by | Jun 17, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, Politics & Elections

As early voting waned last week, Fredericksburg General Registrar/Director of Elections Jessica Atkinson took time out of her day to sit down with the Fredericksburg Free Press for a conversation that ranged from how elections come together (hint: it’s not just magic) to her best advice for election-integrity enthusiasts.

The following interview is edited only lightly and for clarity.

 

Fredericksburg Free Press: I guess we could start out, how has early voting been? What kind of turnout have you seen?

Jessica Atkinson: Yeah, 2%. So, 2% of the registered voters of Fredericksburg have come in for early voting.

I think it’s election fatigue — this is the third election since the election cycle for November last year. Primaries generally just have low turnout in general. People don’t seem to understand the importance of primaries.

And then with the 7th [Congressional] District voting, there are just so many candidates. And we’ve heard that people feel like there’s not a lot of light between the candidates, so it really doesn’t matter who gets the nomination. They’ll just support that person in November.

Or they’re feeling overwhelmed, because that’s a lot of research, trying to decide which candidate to vote (for). So they’re just not going to vote. And we’ve heard that from people across party lines.

FFP: Early voting ended on June 15. What do you do between then and election day on Tuesday?

JA: What do we do? What don’t we do between the 15th and 18th? After we close the polls on the 15th, we then have to switch our mindset to prepare for Election Day, which is printing out paper poll books.

By law, we’re required to use the electronic poll books to check in people. But we’re required to have paper poll books on site in case the electronic poll books go down. Anything can happen with an electronic something. We could lose power in the building, they could not boot up that morning, so we always have paper poll books.

So we run the reports to do that. We prepare the precinct, the things we send out to the precinct, which are information trifolds, polling booths, equipment, office supplies, everything they need to do that day to run the election.

The City of Fredericksburg only has five precincts, so Monday we actually go to the precincts and set up. We take everything out Monday. We do the final upload in the electronic poll books to make sure the most recent data is in there.

So it’s really crunch time.

FFP (interjecting): You have the best view in the city, by the way.

JA: I have the best view in the City of Fredericksburg. It’s the only reason I continue to be General Registrar. You can see the Purina Tower and you can always see all the way down to St. George’s Green Steeple. That’s wild. It’s amazing.

FFP: How did you get into this line of work?

JA: Okay, so that’s a little story.

FFP: I’d love to hear it.

JA: I was working for the Commonwealth of Virginia at the Department of Medical Assistance and Services. That took me a circuitous route to get there.

But I got an email from the governor that said, as a Commonwealth employee, you’re entitled to have civil leave to become an officer of election. And then it’s like, great, wonderful. I believe in democracy. Let me be an officer of election. Signed up.

City of Fredericksburg said, wonderful, you can be an officer of election. So I started at the VFW, I think, in 2017. I really can’t remember the year. And just began to work in the cycle of every election. Took off every election.

In 2020, COVID hit. And at that time, a lot of the older chiefs, because of health concerns, were stepping back. And so I moved up to assistant chief, and then I became chief of Precinct 402, the VFW, which is close to my heart. So that was that path.

Parallel running to that path was, I was working at the Department of Medical Assistance. This was right after adult Medicaid had been approved in Virginia. And DMAS was doing a lot of outreach.

It was also right around this time that Governor Northam had put in the DEI, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion plans, that one Virginia plan, that every agency was supposed to have one. And I had gotten involved with helping DMAS create their DEI plan, and had been on the DEI board, and the chair of that board was the chief of staff, Ivory Banks, and then under that was elected, and I was elected as vice president. She was president, I was vice president.

And one day, in a conversation about doing outreach, I simply said, hey, I think it would be a good idea if while we’re doing outreach for Medicaid, we also did outreach for voters. Because Medicaid people often don’t get to the polls, they don’t understand the great impact that the government has on their lives. Food stamps, Medicaid, transportation, daycare assistance, all that is directly related to the General Assembly, directly related to what’s going on in your local government, and a lot of them just don’t understand that.

And they’ll understand their voice carries weight, and it’s very powerful. So we did that, and then COVID hit. And so we sort of had to put that on hold.

I’d gotten a link on the website for people to click, and it took them to the Department of Elections. There was now a checkbox on your review application. If you wanted to, we would transfer that information to Department of Elections.

And so grander plans got put on hold in that. And then George Floyd happened, and a lot of conversations about race and equity. And for me, those conversations were centered around how important it is to vote.

My parents grew up in eastern North Carolina in the Jim Crow South. If they taught me anything, it’s that you have to respect this right to vote that people work for. And I felt a passion in myself to start just saying, you got to vote, you got to vote.

And so I decided I had a captive audience in the Department of Medical Assistance. So I was just going to put articles in our newsletter about the importance of voting, about the importance of getting your friends to vote, about the importance of getting things together. That happened.

So 2020 came through, 2021 happened. And I was saddened to learn how many state employees did not vote for governor or for General Assembly. They decide our salary, they decide the money we make. How are you not voting? It just blows my mind when I think about it.

FFP: How did you know that a bunch of state employees wouldn’t vote?

JA: Because I would ask. Just my peers. And was shocked by how many people just weren’t involved in state politics, weren’t paying attention, weren’t ‘eyes on the prize,’ and just weren’t involved. I was asking, and then people were asking friends.

And then also, people pay attention to national elections, and then as it goes down the totem pole, there’s less and less focus. State elections generally have lower turnout. Then we’ll have a good turnout for the presidential, we’ll have a lower turnout for state, and then local really doesn’t have good turnout if they’re stand alone elections.

So, I just started talking a lot about the need to vote. Just the need to be an advocate for yourself. And I don’t know any greater way of being an advocate for yourself than voting.

And then this came up. I was on the Fredericksburg listserv for jobs. I really wasn’t looking for a new job. I love my job. And this came up that they needed the general registrar here. And I really prayed about it. I was a woman of faith, and I really prayed about it. And I was like, well, no.

And then something nagged at me to apply for the job, and they gave it to me. So that’s how I ended up here. It really was this cross-section of advocacy, with my background and policy, budget management, I had worked for the IRS, and my experience of just being in the field as a chief.

It was just a perfect storm for me to be here.

FFP: So what year was that that you came on in Fredericksburg?

JA: I came in July of 2022. So I’m just almost to two years. But in two years, this is my fifth election.

Maggie, how many elections have we done? This is our fifth election, but three of them have been dual primaries, which means that’s Maggie [Johnson], the chief deputy registrar, she’s tasked with keeping me in check. And she’s the absentee coordinator, so both. But yeah, so we’ve had three dual primaries during that time.

There are a lot of localities that the presidential dual primary was their first, but we’ve had three dual primaries, we’ve had two generals, we’ve had a local election, we’ve had a lot in the less than two years I’ve been here.

FFP: With all those elections under your belt, like what have you learned? What did you not expect?

JA: I did not expect the level of apathy there is towards voting.

You know, I lived in a little bubble where everybody I knew voted and everybody voted and it was, we talked about it, you talked about candidates and, you know, I got in this job and I just didn’t realize how apathetic people were about voting.

I tell the story all the time when I talk to college students; my niece Kaya, very smart — engineering major at Cornell — she was not registered to vote. And I opened my mouth to talk to her and she said, ‘Jessica, I don’t have time for that. I’ve got other important things to do.’

So when she came to me about something that happened and was very passionate and upset about it, I said, ‘Kaya, I don’t have time to talk to you about it, because you didn’t vote.’ And I told her how that lack of voting directly led to what she was upset about.

And so then she registered to vote. I think people don’t understand that voting really matters. And I think they have gotten lost that there are many elections who are decided by a handful of votes.

And they don’t understand you can be in that handful depending on who that weight is. I do a chart when I go out to speak. I did a chart when I spoke at UMW and I showed them the percentage of people who don’t vote versus the percentage of vote.

And that’s actually the voice. The voice is the people who don’t vote because they’re a larger majority. And those people are actually outweighing you because you’re voting, but they’re not showing up.

The number two thing is this job is ridiculously hard. I’m just shocked. People think we just show up election day and elections magically happen. The amount of work that we put into making an election happen is unbelievable.

The code book of Virginia, it’s like 500 pages long. This is all the code related to registering to vote, elections, post-election work. That’s our Bible. And I don’t think people understand every decision we make is backed up by code. So I think people think we’re just rogue in here doing what we want.

Everything from how a name appears on a ballot to what hours we’re open, when do we offer voting, it has code.

FFP: How many people do you oversee as part of the election process in Fredericksburg? How many poll workers? How many election officers?

JA: So my staff here is two full-time people and one part-time person. I will be hiring another part-time person in July.

We have five precincts. During a primary, we don’t staff the precints as much because there’s just not enough turnout. But we will probably have about six because we have Central, they process the early votes. I’ll be overseeing 36 people.

FFP: In terms of counting, canvassing, do you guys handle that, too?

JA: I handle it. The General Registrar works for the Electoral Board and the Electoral Board is appointed by their parties.

And it’s two of the governor’s party and one of the opposing parties. So we have two Republicans, Dave McLaughlin and Michael Beyer, and one Democrat, Scott Walker. I work with them in canvassing.

Elections end 7 p.m. on Election Day. Then verything comes back and we do our post-election work. That’s another thing. People don’t understand. I’ll be here from 3:30 to 10 o’clock.

Maggie usually comes in with me in the morning and then she leaves about 9 o’clock. And then I’m here until our equipment comes back because we have to secure all our equipment. Then we come back the next morning.

This year is different because Juneteenth is Wednesday. And since it’s a state and federal holiday, we’re actually shifting to Thursday, which kind of compresses our time.

Canvass kicks off the next day. All of our post-election work kicks off the next day. So the board will come in.

We’ll canvass the vote, that’s a fancy way of saying we compare the tapes to what was reported and make any changes that are needed. Then that’ll be that on Friday by 12 noon, any outstanding absentee ballots have to be in. After noon, we’ll do what’s called the post-election, which is we’ll run any absentee ballots we receive between 7 p.m. Tuesday night and Friday 12 noon.

Count those. The board will come back together Monday and which will go through any provisional envelopes, which are people who were not in the poll book who did same-day registration or had another issue that prevented them voting on the machine. And we’ll canvass those votes.

We’ll go through those. They’ll determine who counts. They’ll determine who doesn’t count. We create the final abstract, which the board signs. And then I do all the work of keying all that stuff into the Department of Election website. So, yes. It’s a lot.

FFP: I imagine you take a couple of days off after it’s all done. I think you should.

JA: Yes, yes. I’ll take some time off.

FFP: Starting probably in 2020 with the presidential election, you started hearing about people in your position thrust into the spotlight — not in Fredericksburg — but in places around the country, you know, an amount of scrutiny being put on this registrar position.

How much do other election officers take note of that kind of thing, of that scrutiny?

JA: I take it very seriously.

I will say it has hurt our recruitment for officers of elections, for poll workers, because people have a fear. We saw what happened in Georgia with poll workers. There is a fear of people feeling targeted because they’re working at the polls and somehow they’re part of a large and vast conspiracy.

I tell people my own mother was like, ‘Are you sure you want to work in elections?’ A lot of people when I said I’m thinking about becoming general registrar, they’re like, ‘I don’t know, you’ll be in a spotlight.’ It is a serious concern.

There are safety concerns. We will have conversations with the police chief and the fire chief about some what-ifs for November, because it’ll bring people’s passion to the top. There are people who come in all the time who have a question about election integrity, want to talk to us about, ‘How do we do this? how to do that.’

What people fail to understand is that elections have no real federal law. It’s all state code, state law. And how we conduct elections in Virginia is different than how North Carolina or Maryland conducts their elections. So a lot of times people will be like, ‘Well, I lived in Maryland and they did XY and Z.’ Well, we don’t do it like that in Virginia.

There is a lot more scrutiny here and at the polls on how we’re doing things. I welcome the scrutiny. And I tell people, if you’re curious about how we make the sauce, come and be an officer of election.

That’s the best way to figure out what we’re doing.

FFP: Do people try to talk to you about elections outside of the job?

JA: The joy of having 20,000 voters is people know who the hell you are. When I’m at church, (I go to church at St. George’s), people stop me in St. George’s and say like, what’s the election looking like? Who’s running? I was like, ‘Oh my God, you know, I’m just Jessica Episcopalian now.’ I’m not ‘General Registrar Jessica.’ It does happen.

FFP: Now, on Tuesday, are you going to be floating among the various precincts? Are you going to be here managing things from the home base?

JA: When the polls are open, I do go out first thing in the morning to make sure all my polls are open, this is the luxury of having five precincts.

If I was like in Spotsy and Stafford—they have so many, I wouldn’t be able to do this. But the luxury of being in a city this size with five precincts is that, that morning we get here, we deploy the ballots from here that morning, and then I will go out with the equipment custodian and, they joke that I give them their motivational speech, but I go to all five precincts, I check in, I say, ‘how’s the room, everything, y’all?’ If we get there before the polls open, everything’s great. If we get there after the polls open, we just check in and we do a morning thing.

And then I come back here and I man the phones and answer all the questions and all the concerns. The calls come from the precincts, somebody showed up, there’s an issue they’ve never seen before, they call me, they ask me what they should do. We get calls from, you know, [news]papers wanting to know what the turnout’s looking like, what are the numbers?

We get calls from voters who don’t know where to go. I man the phones, and then the board comes in in the morning, and then we just get ready for all that post-election work that starts after the polls close. Inputting the results, then bringing the stuff back, securing things because certain stuff has to go over to the clerk of courts and we secure it here.

Securing our equipment to make sure everything is returned back. And, yeah, that’s election day. That’s election day.

FFP: Jessica, thank you. I appreciate you; this has been fun.

-As told to Joey LoMonaco

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