National popular vote proposal fails in Va. Senate committee

By: - February 25, 2020 4:46 pm

“I Voted” stickers spread out on a table at a polling place in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A state Senate committee on Tuesday voted down legislation to add Virginia to a coalition of states trying to do away with the Electoral College, delaying an ambitious and hotly debated proposal dealing with how the United States will elect future presidents.

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted 14-1 to push the bill to the 2021 session, ensuring Virginia won’t join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact before this fall’s presidential election. 

Some legislators on the Democratic-led committee signaled they were open to the idea, but said the legislature needed more time to fully consider it.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said the Electoral College was conceived at a time when fewer than 50,000 people were voting, adding that he believes the system had “racist origins” meant to enhance the political power of slave-holding Southern states.

“It is a system which no longer should have any bearing on us,” Surovell said before the vote to delay the bill. “But I understand that undoing the Constitution is really hard.”

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, was the only member of the committee to vote to keep the proposal alive for the current session.

The bill — which had already passed the House of Delegates 51-46 —  would have added Virginia to the movement of states pledging their presidential electors to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide. 

Under Virginia’s current winner-take-all system, the state’s 13 Electoral College votes go to the candidate who gets the most votes from Virginians.

The General Assembly, under full Democratic control for the first time in decades, is passing a variety of measures designed to make it easier to vote in state-run elections. The popular vote measure had potential for a more structural democratic change with national implications. But even if Virginia had passed it, the immediate impact was unclear.

The change would only take effect if enough states join for the compact to represent a majority of the country’s electoral votes, or 270 of 538. Currently, 16 states have signed on with a total of 196 electoral votes, according to the group advocating for the proposal in state legislatures around the country.

That threshold would have to be reached by July in order for the change to take effect in time for this fall’s presidential election. The bill’s sponsor, Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, acknowledged that probably won’t happen.

“But it certainly could happen by 2024,” Levine said.

As the bill made its way through the General Assembly, the discussion mirrored the national debate over the Electoral College, with some lawmakers calling it outdated and unnecessary and others saying it still serves a vital purpose.

Democrats argued the Electoral College is undemocratic because it allows outcomes like the one in 2016, when President Donald Trump was declared the winner despite losing the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

About 44 percent of Virginia voters supported Trump, Levine said, but all of Virginia’s electoral votes went to Clinton. Even if Virginia stays blue, he said, a popular vote system would mean those votes would at least be added to a meaningful national tally.

“It allows every Virginian’s vote to be counted,” Levine said.

Republicans said a popular-vote system would diminish Virginia’s role in the democratic process and allow candidates to focus their campaigns on only the biggest cities and states, leaving out the parts of the country that have fewer voters.

“Instead of Virginia’s votes counting, it would really be California’s votes counting,” said Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt.

On the House floor, Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, a former history and government teacher, urged his colleagues to stand with Alexander Hamilton, who wrote that the Electoral College would allow the country to get “the sense of the people.”

“It’s not sufficient to go to a few big, urban megalopolises and get the votes,” Ware said.

Levine also pitched the popular vote as a remedy for voter apathy for Republicans in overwhelmingly blue cities and Democrats in solidly red states. Where there’s little political competition, Levine said, many people have concluded their votes don’t matter.

“Here’s the sad thing,” Levine said. “They’re right.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.