The Bulletin

Virginia Senate OKs bill to make elections agency ‘truly independent’

By: - February 7, 2022 3:20 pm

Campaign signs outside a polling station in Richmond, Va., November 2, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Senate voted unanimously Monday to approve legislation overhauling state elections oversight by equalizing partisan representation on the State Board of Elections and removing the governor’s power to hand-pick the state’s top election official.

The bill, supported by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, cleared the Democratic-led Senate 40-0 after several tweaks to address the concerns about partisan gridlock and vacancies under the proposed system. Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, the bill’s sponsor, said the goal is to have a “truly independent” state elections commissioner running the Virginia Department of Elections.

“The goal here is to create an environment where it is no longer operating within the governor’s administration,” Vogel said on the Senate floor Monday. “Which is where it is effectively operating now.”

If approved by the House of Delegates, where the GOP majority is pushing a similar proposal, the new system wouldn’t take effect until 2023. Under that timeline, Youngkin would still get to hire his own election overseer to replace current Commissioner Chris Piper when he departs March 11.

The bill’s advancement suggests that, in a swing state that elects a new governor every four years, both parties see value in not having elections oversight pinball between Democratic and Republican appointees based on who’s winning and who’s losing.

The bill overhauling the process would expand the state Board of Elections from five members to eight, with four seats going to Democrats and four seats going to Republicans (as long as the two dominant parties continue to receive the most votes for governor). Those board members would still be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly, but the governor’s party would no longer get a working majority on the board as a perk of winning the last election.

That expanded board would gain the power to hire and fire elections commissioners, according to the bill, as long as at least five board members agree on the decision.

Though Vogel expressed optimism partisanship wouldn’t dominate the new system, she faced skepticism from colleagues who worried party-line board votes could cripple a key agency in a state that holds elections every year.

“We cannot setup a situation where there is a possibility where we have a department as important as the Department of Elections not have an agency head,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said on the Senate floor. “There has to be a contingency.”

Under a tie-breaker provision added to the bill, the Supreme Court of Virginia’s chief justice would pick a retire judge to every year who would step in to break 4-4 ties along party lines. If the commissioner job were to become vacant, the election agency’s director of operations would assume the commissioner’s powers until a replacement could be appointed.

The board’s business can range from pivotal steps in the election process like certifying results and deciding which candidates qualified for the ballot to more mundane matters like assessing fees for campaign ad violations, reviewing ballot designs and determining which voting machines can be used.

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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]