Local election official sees public mistrust as the biggest threat to 2022 midterm elections

Jackie Harris is working to increase public understanding of the election process and youth turnout


Jackie Harris said she hopes to increase local public trust and youth voter turnout before midterm elections. Photo by Luke Fountain, ’25.

Luke Fountain

Jackie Harris, who runs Lexington’s registrar, is working to make sure the 2022 midterms go on “without a hitch.”

Harris sees declining public trust in the electoral process as the biggest threat to the 2022 midterm elections, especially in the aftermath of the capitol insurrection. 

“The greatest risk to the entire process is people’s understanding and willingness to trust in what’s happening,” she said.

Harris, a seasoned veteran of 31 years in the election industry, was appointed by the Lexington Electoral Board last fall to be the Director of Elections and General Registrar. She leads a one-person office in Lexington that helps roughly 3,000 eligible voters. She is working in conjunction with Rockbridge County and Buena Vista.  All three areas have a total of almost 40,000 eligible voters.

The first big test for Harris will be on June 21, with the Republican congressional primary that will feature at least 11 candidates. On the Democratic side, there is currently only one candidate in the field.

Across the nation, election officials have been leaving the profession in historic numbers. A 2022 Brennan Center for Justice study found that one in five local election officials say they’re likely to quit before 2024.

They aren’t just leaving the profession because of the “Stop the Steal” movement aimed at overturning the 2020 presidential election. They are also leaving because of public paranoia, threats of violence and the mental health effects of repeated slander from politicians and everyday citizens, the Brennan study found.

Harris said that the rate at which election officials are leaving is likely even higher, as the role of election officials has gained newfound political attention from leaders as powerful as former president Donald Trump.

“I have a wide range of colleagues I worked with across the United States… whose lives have been threatened,” Harris said. “In the last several years, we have obviously seen across the nation a lot more interest from the political side in how elections are run.”

Trump’s false claims that the 2020 vote was “rigged” against him have sparked a nationwide campaign to terrorize election officials.

“I went to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 and worked on their elections and I’m wearing a flak jacket and the helmet and there are shooters with us,” Harris said. “You just never think coming back to the U.S. that we would ever see where threats of violence make you feel close to what you might’ve felt walking the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan.”

Harris, now in her 60s, worked as deputy registrar of Albemarle County for 15 years and was acting director of elections for Fairfax County for three years. 

She gained notoriety working as policy director for former West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, testifying before Congress, and speaking to groups across the nation like the American Bar Association. She also was a part of two missions to oversee Afghan elections in 2009 and 2010.

She finally landed in Lexington last fall for personal reasons.

“All my grandbabies were being born in Virginia,” Harris said. “So, I was looking for an opportunity to change paths.”

Harris says she is working to “turn the tide” away from the politicization of her role.

“Through explaining what we do, we are getting more people engaged and letting them know that we’re here to help however we can,” Harris said. “I know my colleagues around the nation and certainly across the state are very intent on making sure that all parties who should be engaged are.”

Harris said she is still getting acquainted with the area before making an outreach plan.

“I have yet to kind of establish a rhythm on an established agenda where I would speak,” Harris said. “Normally I would speak to university classes, local K-12 schools, and local organizations. I’m still getting my feet wet here with my two neighboring localities.”

And she might not be able to reach everyone. Harris said she has faced people convinced that voter fraud is occurring.

“Sometimes we just shake our heads going how do we clarify what we do?” Harris said.

For the upcoming elections, Harris said she expects it to be “pretty straightforward,” and does not expect election officials to be threatened. She said she finds it reassuring that Virginia successfully held its governor and House of Delegates elections in November 2021 without any broad claims of fraud.

Over 3.2 million Virginians voted in the November 2021 elections through polling locations across the state and  mail-in and absentee ballots, which were expanded in the pandemic. These regulations will stay the same for 2022. But Harris said she still has fears about the lack of faith in the electoral process.

“The primary threat is the diminishing trust in the electoral process,” Harris said. “[It’s] the people who are weary and no longer have faith that their fellow citizens are doing this [election work with integrity], in a way that inspires confidence and demands and that type of trust.”

The Chairman of the Rockbridge County Electoral Board, Harry Stone, also thinks that changing polling locations because of redistricting will pose another problem for voters.

“We are going to send out or the state or both are going to send voters the changes in their polling locations, and some will swear they never got it,” Stone said. “Some are going to show up at the wrong place to vote on election day, mad as a hornet. There’s not a thing we can do about it.”

Harris’s bigger goal for the 2022 midterms is to increase youth turnout by partnering with other localities to perform an information campaign leading up to the election in November, she said.

“From the 19 to 35 age range, they go into this deep sleep,” Harris said.  “It’s not just here, it’s everywhere you see that fall off.”

Harris said she wants to target local universities to educate students on how to vote, either here or in their home towns.

“I would love to do a partnership with one of the universities or both of the universities to try to come up with something creative,” Harris said. “[I want to create] meaningful ways of talking about civic education with student groups and build rapport so I can post stuff that I already pulled for the rest of the city.”