Three Democratic senators back shorter delay for Virginia’s May elections

By: - April 21, 2020 12:03 am

Election official with voting stickers at Robious Elementary School in Midlothian, Va., November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/Virginia Mercury)

Three Democratic state senators are pushing a legislative proposal to postpone Virginia’s May 5 municipal elections to June, a plan they’re pitching as an alternative to Gov. Ralph Northam’s call to push the elections all the way to November.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, is behind the idea for a shorter delay, joined by fellow Sens. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake.

Their plan — which would likely require adding a special session when lawmakers return to Richmond this week — calls for holding the local elections on June 16, one week before the June 23 congressional primaries. With Democrats holding a 21-19 advantage in the Senate, the announcement suggests Northam’s proposal could fail if it comes to a vote Wednesday.

The competing proposals for how to conduct elections that are just weeks away adds to the uncertainty over voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Election officials have raised concerns that asking people to crowd into polling places could spread the coronavius and put elderly poll workers at risk. The state has said anyone who wants to can cast an absentee ballot by mail during the crisis, but there has not been a move to call off in-person voting entirely.

Northam wants to align the local elections with the presidential contest in November, a move that would significantly boost turnout in the city and town races but would require stopping and restarting elections that are already underway. For weeks, elections officials have been encouraging voters to cast absentee ballots in the local elections, and thousands of otherwise legitimate ballots would be discarded if the elections are postponed six months.

“The idea that you’d cancel the election, destroy the ballots and basically nullify the entire campaign, to me, is crazy,” Petersen said in an interview.

Northam’s proposal would also require reopening a candidate filing window that had been closed, a prospect that doesn’t appear to be sitting well with candidates in the final stages of campaigns they might have to relaunch with the prospect of new competitors.

The winners of the mayoral, council and school board seats in dozens of towns and cities across the state are scheduled to take office July 1.

Petersen said he was also concerned about having the state appear to supersede local charters that dictate the terms for local offices. Delaying the elections to November would allow incumbents to serve longer terms beyond their scheduled June 30 expiration date.

“To me, the local elections have to take plane in June for a very simple reason. And that is these terms all run out June 30 ,” Petersen said. “So after July 1 you’ll have no elected leadership. At least by the charter. And the charter is the constitution for every local government.”

Petersen said he expects his proposal to win bipartisan support. Some Republicans agreed with that assessment.

“Senators Locke, Petersen and Spruill have proposed a reasonable and practical alternative to Governor Northam’s amendment to move the May municipal elections to November,” said Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment. “Their plan would satisfy the concerns of local governments and electoral boards while also accounting for public health.”

The Virginia Municipal League, which represents local governments has registered it’s opposition to Northam’s plan, saying Virginians are already voting in the May elections “in good faith that their voices would be heard.”

Numerous Democratic lawmakers have said they support the governor’s proposal, and some seemed skeptical of the alternative plan proposed in the Senate.

“I don’t understand [why] any Democrat would be willing to go such lengths to keep these local elected officials from having to face a full electorate in November,” Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said on Twitter. “We are going to pay to run multiple elections on weird dates in a pandemic to keep turnout low for these folks?”

It’s not clear if there’s any appetite for holding a special session this week.

That’s the only way lawmakers can introduce new legislation, and doing it could invite other proposals from lawmakers who have their own ideas about things the state should or shouldn’t be doing as it responds to the pandemic.

Northam has proposed moving the May elections through an amendment to the state budget, allowing lawmakers to vote on the idea without requiring a standalone bill.

If Northam’s proposal does not pass and the General Assembly does not approve an alternative plan, the governor can use his executive authority to push the elections back by up to two weeks. Under that scenario, the latest date they could happen would be May 19.

Northam’s stay-at-home order is scheduled to expire June 10, but he has said elections are considered essential business.


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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. Contact him at [email protected]