Few places have felt the effects of election denialism more than Buckingham County, Virginia.
In January, Republicans gained control of the local electoral board and advanced baseless voter fraud claims targeting the work of the then-registrar, Lindsey Taylor, who had been running elections in the county since 2019 and considered herself nonpartisan.
Taylor resigned in March as it became clear they wanted her gone. Two other staffers quit with her, following a deputy registrar who quit in February for the same reasons. The exodus of staff temporarily left the county without a functioning elections office.
On April 12, Luis Gutierrez took over as the new registrar, quickly establishing himself in the community as a combative figure.
That was no surprise to the office's former occupants. Gutierrez had helped advance the baseless fraud claims that drove Taylor and her staff from their jobs.
“The simplest explanation about elections here in Buckingham County is that they are fraudulent,” Gutierrez said in a public meeting of the county’s electoral board in January.
But the turbulence is far from over for the county. On Tuesday, Gutierrez was fired by the Buckingham County Electoral Board, which oversees the office, the latest development in the community's ongoing crisis of confidence in its electoral system.
Members of the community in Buckingham County — a rural and conservative community with many lifelong residents — have swarmed meetings of the local electoral board and county government in recent months, loudly protesting against the turmoil in their local democratic system.
Many worry about what will happen in November and warn that seasoned poll workers will choose not to return because the fraud allegations made in January named and criticized volunteers.
The allegations of wrongdoing “have really torn the fabric of the community,” said Joyce Gooden, an independent who was raised in Buckingham County and has served as a poll worker.
Gooden was falsely accused of being ineligible to serve in the polls in January, because she is an appointed official on the county Planning Commission. Only elected officials are barred from serving as poll workers in Virginia. She said she’s tried to convince other poll workers not to quit when they tell her they don't want to return.
What Buckingham County is grappling with is an issue facing the rest of the country, too. Baseless voter fraud claims — advanced by former President Donald Trump and others — have damaged Americans' confidence in their electoral system, often leaving local officials in the crosshairs as they try and run elections.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil strife in our community," said Maggie Snoddy, a local Democrat, at a Board of Supervisors meeting Monday, "testing whether this community or any community so conceived and so dedicated to free and fair elections and the constitutional right of every citizen to vote can long endure."
'If I told you, I'd have to kill you'
There is no proof of voter fraud or widespread election problems in Buckingham, according to local authorities and the county electoral board’s own review of the allegations made in January.
Yet, a Republican member of that board, Karen Cerwinski, nonetheless hired Gutierrez to serve as interim registrar in April. She acted alone — without a quorum legally required for electoral board business — after two other members of the 3-person electoral board resigned in the wake of the election staff’s resignations and the backlash that followed.
In his brief time as registrar, Gutierrez struck residents as hostile and at times alarming.
Bob Abbott, a disabled combat veteran, stood up Monday night at a Board of Supervisors meeting during the public comment period and said Gutierrez had refused to share his name when they met in April, saying only: “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
"Perhaps I'm not the best person" to say that to, Abbott said, citing his military career. “I volunteered to go to Afghanistan twice to defend the integrity of elections."
Woody Hanes, a Democrat who was sworn in to serve on the electoral board the same day Gutierrez started his job, said he threatened her as well.
She said he asked her whether she was trying to get him fired, which she denied.
“And then he said, 'Well, if I find that you’re lying to me. I’m going to get you fired. I’m gonna go to the judge and get you fired,'" Hanes recalled. After she reported the incident to the county and shared a copy with Gutierrez, Hanes said, he later apologized.
Thomas Jordan Miles III, a Democrat on the Board of Supervisors, sent two requests for information from the registrar’s office, citing Virginia's freedom of information request rules, and received a furious, almost 1,000-word email from the registrar.
In the email, first reported by the Virginia Mercury, Gutierrez said he’d be adding a $200 “convenience fee” to any of Miles' requests for information under Virginia’s FOIA laws and complained he was being disrespected by the requests.
“You have annoyed me for the last time. No more playing nice, Mr. Miles,” he wrote in the email, in which he suggested Miles get a job at Walmart to pay for the FOIA requests.
Miles has prepared a lawsuit to try and force the office's compliance with the FOIA request and plans to file it Wednesday. His attorney informed the electoral board of the planned suit last week. Gutierrez said last week that he never meant the convenience fee to be "factual or true," and that he was just very annoyed with Miles.
Gutierrez spoke at length with NBC News last week, but declined to answer many questions.
“I am qualified for this job, and it’s that simple. I’m qualified for this job, but I’m an outsider. I’m not from this county, so I’m hated,” he said.
Those qualifications are unclear: Gutierrez said he’s owned and run businesses but declined to offer details — “I’m not going to disclose that because I don’t have to, but I know what I’m talking about.”
He says he attended the University of Virginia, St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and Liberty University for a PhD. He signs his emails with “PhD (abd)” — a slang term for doctoral candidates who have completed course work, or "all but dissertation."
He declined to offer details on his past professional experience. Public records and his email to Miles say he’s 62, but when asked to confirm that fact, Gutierrez refused.
“My life is none of your damn business, nor is it of anybody else’s. I’m here to do a job until I’m either killed, die or fired. I’m not leaving. Got it?” he said after being asked if he was resigning, before hanging up a call Monday afternoon.
Cerwinski said Tuesday that he was fired for lying on his job application. Gutierrez did not respond to a request for comment on his firing, or Abbott and Hanes' remarks.
Quorum of one
Cerwinski is also under fire for her role in hiring Gutierrez.
In mid-April, Cerwinski, who did not respond to requests for comment, called an emergency meeting of the electoral board. At the time, she was the only member.
She made herself chair, hired Gutierrez and adjourned the meeting, according to notes documenting the meeting which were briefly posted to the registrar's website and tweeted by Miles. Virginia law requires two members of an electoral board to be present to constitute a quorum for official business.
Hanes was sworn in the day after Gutierrez's hiring, but she said Cerwinski refused to share details of Gutierrez's hiring or the other applications.
Cheryl White, president of the county NAACP chapter, said at the Board of Supervisors meeting Monday that three qualified Black people had applied for the position — which paid Taylor $78,000 a year — but never heard back.
"Buckingham County registrar's office has lost its whole electoral staff, the registrar, the deputy registrar, the office workers — who is there to run our elections? Will we be ready for a fair election in November, when we will have more than 20 persons on the ballot?" she said, noting it was difficult to find the job listing.
Miles, the Democrat who angered the registrar by filing public information requests, said he hoped the registrar’s firing would “begin to bring back normalcy and stability" but warned that the local Republicans who first drove fraud allegations are still a persistent force.
“We’ve been on a tumultuous journey started by a small faction that is still active in our community. Until this faction is stopped, we will still have these unnecessary battles and distractions that do not represent the people of Buckingham County," he said in a statement.
Hanes said she was left in the dark about the registrar’s firing until Tuesday morning, days after Cerwinski had spoken with Gutierrez about resigning on Friday. (Gutierrez declined to resign, Cerwinski later said.)
Still, she’s optimistic that the community can move forward — if the electoral board can lead.
“The community needs to heal and we need to move forward," she said. "We need to take responsibility and I'm one of them. I just need to show some strong leadership in doing that. We need to take the responsibility."