Governor Ralph Northam has vetoed a bipartisan effort to take some of the partisan rancor out of the Virginia State Board of Elections.
Northam, a Democrat, issued the veto on Monday, putting an end to this year’s effort to add some bipartisanship to a state department recently accused of political bias.
“This was a good-faith effort to help rebuild trust in the Department of Elections and remove some of the overt partisanship from the body,” said Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Mt. Jackson. “It’s extremely disappointing that Governor Northam ignored bipartisan majorities to keep a partisan lock on this department.”
Under the proposal that passed the General Assembly, the three member State Board of Elections would become a five-member body. The party of the governor would appoint three members, while the other party would appoint two. It would also ensure that all 5 members were from different Congressional Districts.
The plan maintains the one-seat advantage for the Governor’s party as currently written into law, but with a twist — four members of the board would have to agree to appoint the Commissioner of the Department of Elections.
Until now, this relatively-new position was filled by a gubernatorial appointment. But a report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee last year raised eyebrows in the legislature.
Jamie Bitz, a chief legislative analyst for JLARC, said interviews with local voter registrars and state elections staffers showed there was “a perception of political bias that was reflected in decisions about certain policies and certain agency operations.”
In an interview after the meeting, Bitz said JLARC was told that former agency leaders directed staff to help Democratic groups avoid campaign finance laws and rules that require political groups to put their names on ads.
“We heard of one example where the previous deputy commissioner at the agency very openly stated to a number of people, including to one high-level elections official in Virginia, that one of her key responsibilities was to help Hillary Clinton be elected president,” Bitz said.
Northam declined to reappoint the Commissioner in charge during the report period. Republicans wanted to ensure some bipartisan cooperation in appointing future Commissioners.
But Northam balked, arguing in his veto message that the legislature’s plan would create D.C.-style gridlock and possibly leave the Commonwealth without a Commissioner. That’s unacceptable, according to the Governor, in a state that holds elections every year.
Northam’s veto of the measure, House Bill 1620, cannot be overridden, as the Constitution gives the legislature once chance to override vetoes or decline amendments — the one day reconvened session held in early April.