Assembly debates electoral system

Published 9:55 pm Thursday, January 26, 2017

By Julie Rothey

Capital News Service

A bill to end Virginia’s “winner take all” system of awarding Electoral College votes was approved by a House subcommittee Tuesday.

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The electoral votes should be divided among presidential candidates based on how many of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts they win, the subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee decided on a 5-2, party-line vote.

HB 1425, sponsored by Delegate Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, would give Virginia’s remaining two electoral votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote.

This system is used in Maine and Nebraska and is known as the “congressional district system.” Under the system, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump would have received six of Virginia’s 13 Electoral College votes, even though Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the state last fall.

Cole said he thinks the bill would increase voter turnout, because it would make people feel more like their vote mattered. He said Northern Virginia is so populous that it carries the state, and that makes people in rural Virginia feel their vote doesn’t count.

A citizen testifying before the Elections Subcommittee agreed.

“Western Virginia has been discriminated against … for many years,” the man said. He said the system was set up to protect minorities, and it’s not doing that.

Clara Wheeler, vice chairwoman of the State Board of Elections, told the subcommittee, “When Virginia takes a position that is all or nothing, vast numbers of your communities — your constituents — have no say in the Electoral College.”

The five Republicans on the subcommittee voted for HB 1425. Besides Cole, they included delegates Leslie Adams of Chatham, Buddy Fowler of Glen Allen, Chris Jones of Suffolk and Margaret Ransone of Kinsale, who chairs the panel. The two Democrats on the subcommittee — delegates Mark Sickles of Fairfax and Luke Torian of Prince William — voted against the measure.

The bill now shifts to the full House Privileges and Elections Committee for consideration.

Two organizations opposed the bill.

The Virginia League of Women Voters said it dislikes this bill, because it allocates votes based on gerrymandered districts.

Bills are pending in the General Assembly to amend the Virginia constitution to prevent gerrymandering, but they could not go into effect until redistricting occurs in 2021, after the next presidential election.

Carol Noggle, co-president of the league, said a bill of this kind should not be passed before redistricting has been decided.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia also opposed the bill on grounds that it doesn’t give each person a direct vote.

Instead, the ACLU supported HB 1482, which the subcommittee voted to kill. That measure, introduced by Delegate Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, would have entered Virginia into a national compact to give all electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

Eleven states, which together hold 165 electoral votes, have approved the compact. It would go into effect when its member states represent a majority of the country’s 538 electoral votes.

In response to arguments that his bill would ignore the will of the people, Simon replied, “We don’t know what the will of the people is, because we’re told the state’s going to go this way,” which discourages voter turnout.

“While we oppose the Electoral College, this bill sets a different benchmark more in line with the one-person, one-vote principle,” said Hope Amezquita of the Virginia ACLU.

On an unrecorded voice vote, the subcommittee recommended that Simon’s legislation be “passed by indefinitely,” meaning it is dead for this legislative session.

Virginia has 13 Electoral College votes, one for each member in the U.S. House of Representatives plus two for its U.S. senators. In December, the state cast all 13 of those votes for Clinton, because she carried Virginia on Nov. 8. Clinton won 49.7 percent of the statewide vote to Trump’s 44.4 percent.

But Trump carried six of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts in the presidential election; Clinton carried five congressional districts. Under HB 1425, seven of Virginia’s Electoral College votes would have gone to Clinton and six would have gone to Trump.

If that bill passes the House, it likely will face opposition in the Senate. Also on Tuesday, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee considered an identical proposal — SB 837, sponsored by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Midlothian. It was defeated on a 5-9 vote.

Five Republicans voted in favor of Chase’s bill; six Democrats and three Republicans voted against it.