RICHMOND — Local elections in Virginia scheduled for next month are set to proceed — for now — after the state Senate rejected a proposal from Gov. Ralph Northam to move them to November.
In one of its final actions during an unprecedented reconvened session, the Senate opted to pass Northam’s plan by for the day, effectively killing it and keeping the elections set for May 5. Northam has the power to move the elections back two weeks to May 19 — which he has already done for June’s congressional and U.S. Senate primaries — but he would need the legislature’s approval to extend them beyond the middle of next month.
The towns of Scottsville and Louisa are among those in Central Virginia slated to hold elections May 5.
The Senate made its decision via voice vote, meaning a record of which lawmakers endorsed the plan and which didn’t does not exist. During tense debate, the idea of killing Northam’s plan and calling a special session on elections had some bipartisan support.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, encouraged lawmakers not to “make decisions based on hysteria” and urged a special session — which the governor would decide whether to call — in order to consider two bills he has drafted, which would move the municipal elections from May 5 to June 16 and move party primaries from June 23 to July 28. Northam already pushed the primaries from June 9 to June 23.
Petersen’s measures also stipulate that the State Board of Elections create guidelines related to voter safety.
“We are a democracy. These elections need to [move forward], but we also need to build in protections for the public and our volunteers,” Petersen said. “Simply moving dates around doesn’t do that, especially since there is no agreed timeline for the pandemic.”
Some senators, however, warned that holding the elections in less than two weeks would put voters in danger.
“This is about public health. This is about keeping people safe,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. “It’s about preventing COVID hot spots.”
In the House, lawmakers initially rejected Northam’s proposal in a 45-47 vote. Delegates reconsidered the decision and the measure ultimately passed, 47-45. Northam’s proposal would have required approval by both chambers.
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement that the governor is grateful for the House making the “common-sense decision” to move the elections.
“He will carefully review next steps, given the actions of the Senate,” Yarmosky said.
A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Elections deferred questions to Northam’s office.
Northam’s amendment also called for absentee ballots already cast to be discarded, which lawmakers opposed. Under the governor’s plan, municipal officials’ terms that would have expired June 30 would have been extended until new officials were elected in November.
“It would be a horrible precedent to turn away ballots that have already been cast,” said Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County.
In the House, Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, said the move could disenfranchise voters who have already cast the absentee ballots.
The House ultimately backed the measure with some Democrats arguing that the delay is the only viable option to conduct the elections safely.
“Let’s not emulate those places where poll workers and citizens have contracted COVID-19,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. “There is a poll worker in Illinois who died of the virus, several people sick in Wisconsin. There is too much at stake.”
Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, said that having voters cast ballots in person in the middle of the pandemic would go against the social distancing measures elected officials are promoting.
“Talk about mixed messages, much like we are showing today,” Price said. She was referring to a failed vote in the House on Wednesday on a proposal to convene the chamber virtually, so that lawmakers could return to their homes to cast votes in the veto session.