A Knee-jerk Reaction and Changes in the Wind

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

There has been a kerfuffle over another one of Governor Youngkin’s appointments. Late last week, the Governor named Susan Beals to be Commissioner of the Department of Elections.

In contrast to Chris Piper, whom she will replace and who had never worked on a campaign nor donated to a political candidate, Beals has a history of working on Republican campaigns. More to the point, she previously worked as a legislative assistant to controversial Senator Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and donated to her campaigns.

Democrats exploded. Because Chase had introduced legislation (SB 605) calling for an audit of the 2020 presidential election, a spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Virginia charged that Youngkin had embraced “the fringe, far-right conspiracy theories of Donald Trump and The Big Lie.”

It turned out the Democrats may have been too quick on the draw. On Monday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Beals had issued a statement pledging to support the Department of Elections’ strategic plan. The newspaper went on to note that Chase was unhappy with her former legislative assistant. The RTD cited a Facebook post by Chase saying she was troubled by the appointment, partially because Beals did not support the proposal for a “full forensic audit.” The senator concluded by declaring, “This appointment is a devastating blow to the grassroots movement in Virginia to seek a full audit here in Virginia and I hope the Governor will reconsider this appointment.”

This scuffle takes place against a backdrop of legislative moves to restructure the Board and Department of Elections.  Under current law, the Board of Elections consists of five members appointed by the Governor. (It was increased from three to five in 2020.)  Three of those members shall be of the party of the Governor.  The remaining members shall be from the other major party.  The members serve four-terms, which are staggered, and they do not serve at the pleasure of the Governor.  The Commissioner of the Department of Elections is also appointed by the Governor for a term of four years, which shall begin on July 1 of the year following a gubernatorial election. That position is also not subject to the pleasure of the governor.  All appointments are subject to confirmation by the General Assembly.

There are two bills now in conference, to be taken up in the upcoming special session, that would make some fundamental changes: HB 305 (Ransone, R-Westmoreland) and SB 371 (Vogel, R-Fauquier). Although the chief patrons on both bills are Republicans, the difference in the bills reflects the partisan make-up of the two chambers. Both bills provide for the Commissioner of Elections to be appointed by the Board of Elections, rather than the Governor, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly. They also provide that the Commissioner can be removed by the Board.

The major difference between the bills is the composition of the Board. The House bill would expand the number of Board members from five to seven and retain the provision that a majority of the members (four) be from the party of the Governor. The Senate bill would increase the number of Board members from five to eight with each political party having equal representation. It directs the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia to designate a retired circuit court judge to act as tie-breaker for the Board, if needed.

In both bills, the terms of the Board members would continue to be staggered.  Both bills carry an effective date of January 1, 2023.

My Soap Box

Although the Board of Elections has generally avoided controversy in the past, these proposed changes would help to remove it even further from potential controversy. Having the Commissioner appointed by the Board (both bills would require five votes for appointment) would likely serve to prevent a partisan activist from being appointed. Furthermore, having both major parties equally represented on the Board, with a neutral tie-breaker (the Senate version), should help minimize the chance of cries of partisanship over its rulings.