Election Mulligan

by Jim McCarthy

Virginia’s new governor has proposed a legislative amendment preempting the normal election cycle and terms of office for a county school board in what can only be described as a “do over.” The amendment moves a school board election date from 2023 to 2022 and authorizes a new election for the nine-member body.

Politically, the move, an increasingly familiar trope among some conservative legislatures, echoes the “big steal” theme and tactics to magnify electoral results by officials. While not drawing inordinate attention, it is, at its core, a pernicious attempt to scuttle the democratic process that seated the board at its last election.

The ostensible rationale is related to the handling of sex crimes by the Loudoun County School Board occurring in late 2021 at the height of the campaign season. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, and ultimate winner, capitalized on the contentious issue declaring his conclusions while calling for an investigation stating:

I am calling for an immediate investigation into the Loudoun County School Board for their gross negligence. They had a duty of care and they failed.  They endangered our students and violated the Virginia Constitution. As a father, I am ignited by an unwavering resolve to not just fix this but to hold those who have failed our children accountable.

In April of this year, the Attorney General announced the convening of a special grand jury to investigate the school board, one day after the governor submitted his legislative amendment. The polished accompanying message to the amendment from a spokesperson from the governor’s office appeared to be an attempt to disguise or soften its actual effect:

The last few years signified some real challenges with the Loudoun County School Board. So, in the spirit of transparency and accountability, my Amendment gives parents the ability to elect their school board this year, one year earlier than it was stated in the original legislation. This election can reflect the will of parents and it’s a chance with my amendment to do that right now, this November.

Thus, despite well rehearsed kabuki to avoid being tagged a Trumper, the governor has marinated some red meat and barbecued it to taste for a base starved for signs of a radical revival of the kind of  antics for which the former president was known. The amendment “do over” and grand jury investigation place the Commonwealth’s administration squarely within the mainstream of conservative Republican schemes advocating so-called election integrity. Collateral damage to the tradition of nonpartisan school board elections is being ignored in the dash to satisfy a campaign pledge and reward supporters.

A handful of states have begun to shift to partisan school board campaigns as a measure to afford voters “more information” about candidates. In most cases, school board elections remain nonpartisan. It is estimated that only 94 of the country’s 1,000 largest districts authorize school board candidates to identify with political parties. The current intensity of focus by parents may have been exacerbated by the COVID shut-in, creating time for increased parental participation in school board activities. Inviting or encouraging voters to participate in the practice of mulliganism in elections is poor leadership.

The governor’s amendment poses far deeper danger to public education and public policy than the debates over CRT, DEI, and school books which, at least, remain in the open. It portends a precedent that legislators and the electorate need to consider carefully. Withdrawal would be statecraft of a high order.

Jim McCarthy is a retired New York City attorney now living in Virginia.