Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday rejected a bill that would have expanded the state Board of Elections and handed the body power to appoint the state’s elections chief.
Sponsored by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, and Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, the bill would have expanded the board’s membership from three to five, and required at least four of the members to agree on a commissioner of elections.
Following the 2017 legislative elections that included ballot problems and one contest that resulted in a televised tiebreaker, GOP legislative leaders created a joint subcommittee to study election issues ahead of the 2019 session. The registrar community appeared to rally behind measures to expand the state board and depoliticize the commissioner role, an idea that grew out of a working group of registrars and members of local electoral boards.
Northam wrote in his veto message: “This could lead to delays or a lack of appointment all together.” He added: “In a state that has an election every few months, it is imperative that Virginia’s electoral system have steady leadership.”
Arguing for stability in the state’s elections process, Northam earlier this month proposed an amendment that would have allowed him to retain power over the appointment of the elections commissioner, but offered to stagger the political affiliation of people appointed to the board. Lawmakers agreed only to the latter.
Northam vetoed two other proposals related to the state’s election process. He declined to sign a bill establishing redistricting criteria for the process and rejected a proposal that would allow for redistricting outside of the census process.
Northam said a bill introduced by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, that would add parameters to the redistricting process does not go far enough to protect the voting power of people of color.
The bill would have required contiguous and compact districts. Northam said in his veto language that the bill does not do enough to assure minorities can “elect a preferred candidate.”
“The criteria should also prohibit districts that favor or disfavor any political party, incumbent legislator, member of Congress, or individual or entity,” Northam wrote in his veto message.
Suetterlein said in a statement that Northam “has once again put partisanship first by vetoing the only anti-gerrymandering bill to cross his desk.”
In February, the General Assembly agreed on an amendment to the state constitution that would hand the task of redistricting to an independent, bipartisan body. That body would operate under criteria laid out by federal law, which calls for “racial and ethnic fairness.”
The assembly would have to approve the amendment again next year to move it forward. If that happens, it would go to voters as a state ballot referendum in 2020. Approval of the referendum would ensure the commission would be in place for the 2021 redistricting process after the next U.S. census.
Northam also vetoed a bill that would have allowed the General Assembly to redraw legislative districts, apart from the redistricting process in the year following the census.
Advocates for the bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, argued that it would allow the assembly to make “technical” changes to district boundaries for the sole purpose of aligning them with local voting precincts.
Localities modify voting precincts in between redistricting years to accommodate for growth in the number of voters, for example.
In his veto message, Northam argued that the bill violates the Virginia Constitution, which limits changes to legislative districts to the year after the census.
“This bill would allow the General Assembly to reapportion at any time of its choosing,” Northam wrote. “This would jeopardize Virginians’ constitutional right to equal apportionment.”