Virginia Lawmakers Reject Bid to Delay May Elections

State legislators voted down the governor’s proposal to push back local races to the November election in light of the coronavirus crisis.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam gestures during a coronavirus news conference on April 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Mary Katherine Greenlaw has been the mayor of Fredericksburg, Virginia, since 2012, and she’s always campaigned in line with state and local rules. But with Covid-19 now making public gatherings nearly impossible, her town is among the dozens of municipalities across the state facing tough decisions with residents set to go to the polls next month.

Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has proposed moving these local contests to November to be held during the general election.

“As other states have shown, conducting an election in the middle of this global pandemic would bring unprecedented challenges and potential risk to voters and those who work at polling places across the commonwealth,” Northam said in a statement two weeks ago. “Making these decisions now will help election officials prepare and implement the necessary changes.”

But Greenlaw isn’t a fan of the idea.

“Many people have already voted, and the idea of discarding votes already cast seems to disenfranchise voters as well and is very unpopular,” she said in a phone interview Thursday morning.

Not only has her city registrar’s office worked to mail out more absentee ballots than were cast in previous elections, but Greenlaw is concerned with issues echoed by legislators who, at a veto session held Wednesday in Richmond, rejected Northam’s proposal.

“In Fairfax we’re on track to have a higher turnout than in years past,” Senator Chap Petersen, D- Fairfax City, said during debates over the proposed delay, which continued late into the evening. “We would void an election that’s already taken place.”

While the House of Delegates narrowly approved the delay, it led to rare agreement between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate as lawmakers claimed the date change would pose both logistic and civil rights problems.

Senator John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, said local candidates had already expended resources on campaign materials like mailers and social media ads. 

“We are going to confuse the heck out of all of the electorate if we start moving the dates around,” he said. 

Wednesday evening’s debate was complicated by the release of new data from Wisconsin’s Department of Health showing at least 19 cases of the highly transmissible Covid-19 were linked to the state’s controversial April 7 election, which included in-person voting despite the pandemic.

Senator Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, whose Northern Virginia district is home to two infection outbreaks, pointed to the Wisconsin numbers as well as Virginia’s recent average of nearly 22 deaths per day as reason to move the races.

“That’s the equivalent of this chamber dying every two days,” he said before the 40-member body. “I know we have lots of friends in local government and they’re unhappy they have to run an election during a pandemic, but this stuff happens and we have to deal with that appropriately.”

Northam said in a statement following the failed vote that he was still weighing his options. 

Because the General Assembly did not adopt the governor’s proposal, Northam and election officials would need to develop a new plan and hold another special session, bringing the legislators back to Richmond, to vote once more before any changes could be made. 

Senator Petersen proposed a June date for the local races, but his proposal could not be voting on Wednesday night due to the 400-year-old chamber’s procedures. His plan could be among those that get floated if a special legislative session is called. 

Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, found himself siding with the senators in rejecting the date change. He said moving the date of an election, even during a pandemic, would be an overreach of power for all involved. He wasn’t sure of a solution, but he imagined the General Assembly would have to reconvene soon to address the issue.

“It’s a very dangerous precedent to move elections,” Farnsworth said in a phone interview before referencing the makeshift locations the House and Senate used to practice social distancing when they met Wednesday.

“They need to keep those tents up for another day,” he added. 

There is also the possibility of getting the courts involved, although the Virginia Supreme Court has shut its courthouse doors during the Covid-19 outbreak and is holding digital sessions for the first time in the body’s 244-year history. 

In the Virginia House, which ultimately approved the election delay Wednesday after initially voting it down, lawmakers were disappointed with the Senate’s decision. 

Delegate Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, said in a text message Thursday morning that state senators “are putting lives at risk, leaving no practical legal alternative to holding an in-person election during the peak weeks of a pandemic.”

As for Greenlaw, she’s willing to follow the guidance of the General Assembly as she must, but she offered another good reason to keep local elections separate from the November contest: she and her fellow Fredericksburg mayoral candidates, like in many other municipal races, run nonpartisan races.

“It’s one reasons we resist going to November, getting the local election confused with a possibly contentious presidential election,” she said. “You might get more voters, but we’ve stood steadfast about elections in May because we are nonpartisan.” 

And if Northam gets his way? 

“We’ll have to run around and pick up all our signs and put them back in September I guess,” the mayor said. “It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not our preference.”

%d bloggers like this: