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.
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.
Edgardo Cortés, the elections commissioner hired by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2014, is not staying on under Northam. His last day was Jan. 12, the Friday before Northam’s inauguration and the last full day of the McAuliffe era.
Felix Sarfo-Kantanka, McAuliffe’s former deputy secretary of administration, has been serving as acting elections commissioner. His tenure is expected to be short, because he announced this month that he was taking a job with Dominion Energy in late January.
Over the past four years, local election registrars have regularly complained about the state department being unresponsive to their needs and mismanaging the statewide voter system. Due to Cortés’ status as a McAuliffe appointee, Republicans accused him of being overly partisan. Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, publicly called for Cortés’ removal in 2016 after registrars complained about slowdowns and crashes crippling the voter system.
More recently, registrars have struggled with data quality issues created by the state’s rollout of electronic voter registration through the DMV in 2016. Several registrars have said the information coming to them from that system is unreliable or incomplete, forcing local election officials to do more work to vet requests coming in electronically.
Cortés and his department at times seemed out of sync with the Board of Elections, which is also appointed by the governor. Last summer, Cortés’ department stopped providing guidance to the board on whether disputed election ads did or did not violate the state’s disclosure laws, a change that caught the board off guard.
In a farewell letter this month to the election community, Cortés said Virginia now has more active registered voters than ever before and has become a “leader in election technology and modernization efforts.”
York County Registrar Walt Latham, the president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia, said his group supports the legislation because it will solve the “lack of communication.”
Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, called Ransone’s bill one of the most important pieces of legislation the General Assembly will consider because it would help fix “a totally broken system.”
“There’s nothing that is harder for one of us in this job than to represent people who don’t believe in the integrity of the process,” Habeeb 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.
“I think a lot of the problems that they’ve brought forward are more problems of personality than they are process,” Nichols said.
In the Fredericksburg-area 28th District election, an estimated 147 voters were given ballots for the wrong House district due to errors in the election system. Democratic-aligned voters sued to have Republican Del. Bob Thomas’ apparent victory over Democrat Joshua Cole thrown out, but a federal judge declined to intervene. In the same race, 55 absentee ballots arrived a day late. A local judge declined to order those ballots counted, but the late delivery caused officials to take a closer look at how absentee ballots are tracked in the mail.
In the Newport News-based 94th District, a recount showed Republican Del. David Yancey tied with Democrat Shelly Simonds after the three-judge recount panel decided to count a disputed ballot for Yancey at a final court hearing to sign off on the results. Simonds challenged the judges’ decision to count the ballot late in the process, to no avail.
Early this month, the State Board of Elections broke the tie by randomly drawing a name from a bowl. Yancey won the draw, ensuring Republicans would have a 51-49 majority in the House.