The Privileges and Elections Committee in the Virginia House of Delegates held a meeting on Thursday to discuss issues related to the conduct of elections that were revealed following the aftermath of many close races in November 2017. According to a press release from the office of Speaker of the House Kirk Cox (R-66), the items set to be discussed included absentee balloting, the assignment of voters in split precincts, and recount law and procedures. “One of the most sacred rights offered to the people of Virginia is the right to vote in a fair and free election,” said Republican leader Cox. “There were numerous questions raised during the 2017 elections…This subcommittee will have the ability to broadly review these questions and determine what, if any, steps should be taken.”
The meeting among lawmakers comes after a few contentious and historically-odd political races engulfed Virginia media. In Newport News, Delegate David Yancey (R-94) won the tie breaker against Democrat challenger Shelly Simonds after each candidate received exactly 11,608 votes. The winner was chosen weeks later by the Board of Elections after Yancey’s name was drawn from a ceramic bowl.
As well, in another Virginia district, voters were seemingly misguided regarding the election in which they were voting. According to a report from WTOP, at least 147 people were given the wrong ballot on election day. 384 voters in the Fredericksburg area were actually given the wrong ballot in split precincts in the county. 110 were wrongly assigned to the 88th District, but should have been in the 28th. 207 voters were wrongly assigned to the 28th but should be in the 88th. 67 voters were wrongly assigned to the 28th but should have voted in a third neighboring district, the 2nd House district.
On Friday, the House Privileges & Elections Committee passed legislation reforming the make up of the State Board of Elections to guarantee a bipartisan administration of the electoral process. House Bill 1405 increases the membership of the State Board of Elections from the current three members to five members and their tenure from four to five years. Moreover, according to the bill, representation on the board, “shall be given to each of the political parties having the highest and next highest number of votes in the Commonwealth at the last preceding gubernatorial election, with three Board members being of the party of the Governor.” The legislation would also allow the State Board of Elections to appoint the Commissioner that oversees the Department of Elections, previously a political appointee of the governor.
H.B. 1405 passed through committee on a 11 to 10 vote with all Democrats dissenting. Republicans believe the board should not be partisan and that the Commissioner of the Board of Elections should be independent of the Governor. Fairfax-based Caucus Chairman Tim Hugo (R-40) says, “Over the last four years, we lost confidence in the Department of Elections and its ability to run our elections without partisan bent.”
Chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee Mark Cole (R-88) stated, “Virginians should be confident that their elections are administered freely, fairly and honestly, and the best way to guarantee that in today’s supercharged partisan environment is to evenly constitute the State Board of Elections.” Therefore, the bowl used in this year’s election tie will be retired and written down in the pages of yesteryear as a controversial item used in what was undoubtedly one of the most precarious election cycles in Virginia history.
The new law will ensure that elections are administered fairly at the ballot box, making clear that Virginians have the opportunity to clear choose their representatives in the General Assembly. “Virginia’s election law, procedures and practices should be administered fairly by representatives of both parties, not just the party that controls the governor’s mansion. This bill is a critically important reform,” Delegate Cole added.