Virginia Joint Legislative Subcommittee to Study Election Changes

[Image by Jack Hollingsworth via history.com]

Virginia’s legislature will form a joint legislative subcommittee to study possible changes to the state’s election system after a hard-fought and occasionally controversial 2017 election cycle. Richmond.com has more:

Recounts, ballot problems and a televised tiebreaker made Virginia’s 2017 election cycle a wilder ride than normal, but the General Assembly will take a slow and steady approach to figuring out legislative fixes.

Republican leaders from the House of Delegates and state Senate announced Thursday that they will create a joint subcommittee to study the issues and craft a comprehensive response for the 2019 session.

At a news conference, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said legislators have heard plenty about “the chaos in some areas” of the 2017 elections.

“Rather than doing this in a chaotic way, we have made a decision to undertake it in a deliberate and structured format,” Norment said.

“One of the most sacred rights offered to the people of Virginia is the right to vote in a fair and free election,” said House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights. “And we really feel like we owe it to the people to get this right.”

Cox said the subcommittee will focus on absentee voting, how voters are assigned to legislative districts in split voting precincts, and procedures for recounts and tiebreakers.

Several Democratic-sponsored bills to tweak election law in response to the tied 94th House District race in Newport News failed in a House subcommittee Thursday morning. Among the failed bills were proposals to hold runoff elections to break ties instead of random drawings and legislation to limit when recount judges can review disputed ballots.

The special panel means major election law bills inspired by last year’s headlines will not be acted upon immediately. But several lawmakers are pushing for legislation this year that they say could repair behind-the-scenes electoral dysfunction.

One fix, supported by registrars, would expand the size of the Department of Elections and change how the state’s election commissioner is chosen – but the governor’s office (who recently appointed a new Commissioner, Chris Piper, to replace outgoing Edgardo Cortes) has objections:

The House elections subcommittee that met Thursday advanced a bill that would increase the membership of the State Board of Elections from three members to six and allow the board, not the governor, to choose the elections commissioner. With a three-member board, two members talking to each other makes a quorum, which means the state’s public meeting laws are triggered any time two board members want to talk to each other.

House Bill 1405, sponsored by Del. Margaret B. Ransone, R-Westmoreland, originally called for a five-member board. But the number was bumped to six and other amendments were made to give Republicans and Democrats equal representation on the board. Under current law, the party that won the last governor’s race controls the elections board because it gets two of the three seats.

A fully bipartisan board would likely mean lots of deadlocked 3-3 votes. A version of the bill introduced in the Senate by Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, would create a five-member board with three seats reserved for the party in the Executive Mansion.

With the chance for a fresh start under a new governor, the registrar community appears to be rallying behind the bill to expand the state board and depoliticize the commissioner role, an idea that grew out of a recent working group of registrars and members of local electoral boards.

The Northam administration is expected to oppose the bill because it strips away gubernatorial powers.

Edwards said he was meeting with Northam’s office Thursday to “look at it again.” He said his bill came as a “recommendation” from the registrars.

“They felt the way it was organized now, they wanted to have more say,” Edwards said…

Dave Nichols, the new elections services manager at the Department of Elections, said the administration opposes the bill because it would create an agency that’s not accountable to the governor. Many of the registrars’ concerns, he said, can be addressed “within the system” as it now exists.

The subcommittee’s work will be closely scrutinized for several reasons: the tension between gubernatorial and legislative control (and state/local) over elections, the state’s narrow partisan split – and the fresh memories of a wild 2017 cycle that kept everyone guessing. It will be interesting to see what the subcommittee comes up with, and whether or not there is room for compromise in the deeply divided Old Dominion. Stay tuned …

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