Home 2020 Elections Video: Virginia State Senators Chap Petersen and Scott Surovell Debate Whether/When to...

Video: Virginia State Senators Chap Petersen and Scott Surovell Debate Whether/When to Move May Municipal Elections Due to COVID-19 Concerns


There was an interesting – and important – debate yesterday in the Virginia State Senate about the question of whether to move the date of municipal elections, currently set for May 5, barring executive action of some sort by Gov. Northam to delay them. As this article explains:

Local elections in Virginia scheduled for next month are scheduled 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.

So that’s where we stand now. As for yesterday’s votes on Budget Bill Amendment 36“The general election and special elections scheduled to be held on May 5, 2020, shall be held on November 3, 2020” – the House of Delegates concurred by two votes (47-45), after “reconsideration,” while the State Senate “passed by for the day” (aka, effectively killed) the amendment without a recorded vote (yep, lame). Which means the Amendment failed, leaving municipal elections as still set for May 5, just 12 days from now.

What was the thinking of proponents and opponents of moving the elections? The following exchange, between two State Senators and former law partners Scott Surovell (in support of Gov. Northam’s amendment) and Chap Petersen (opposed to Gov. Northam’s amendment) give a good flavor of it. Check out the video, followed by some transcribed highlights…

Sen. Surovell: “I feel like we’re having a conversation with ourselves here and we’re in some alternate reality that I don’t recognize. First of all, the body down the hall adjourned 30 minutes ago. They’re gone; they’ve made their policy statement. And the one we have in front of us is up or down. And that’s our choice. And unless somebody else wants to play ball, there ain’t no more ball to play.

When I saw the numbers today that came out around 3:00 p.m., the last two days we’ve had our highest positive test count yet…600 new confirmed cases per day in the last two days. We are now averaging right now 22 dead Virginians a day. That’s the equivalent of this chamber dying in 48 hours, every two days, 150 people a week. We’ve not…reached the apex. Pretty soon, COVID is gonna be the number one cause of death in the United States of America…We’re in a pandemic this hasn’t happened since 1918…This doesn’t happen a lot, but we’re all talking as if like there’s not a pandemic going on…

…It came out this morning that in Wisconsin, they had 19 cases…of COVID infection they tied to the election; who knows how many people…those 19 infected…how many are gonna spread beyond that?…Now I know we all have lots of friends in local government. I know there are these people who are running who are unhappy that they happen to be running in a local election that happens to be in a pandemic for the first time since 1918…but you know, this kind of stuff happens every once in a century and we have to deal with that appropriately.

This is not just about those towns and the city. OK? My father had a kidney transplant eight years ago. He takes immunosuppressive drugs every day. He’s diabetic. He has to work in a city that wants to have one of these elections in May. God forbid that city turns into a COVID hotspot because we chose to go forward with an election. I have to work in that city. My 29 employees have to work in that city….We’re all in this together. And if we take an active step that causes further deaths in this Commonwealth, that’s on us…

…I think what’s going on here is there’s a famous psychology dilemma, it’s called the trolley dilemma. Look it up on Wikipedia. And it says suppose you’re standing at the switch for railroad track; the trains coming down the track…you don’t touch the switch, five people get run over by the train, you pull the switch, one person gets run over by the train. Do you pull the switch? And I think that’s what’s going on here. I think we have people who have people they know who are saying things and other people they don’t and we can’t make a decision. From my perspective, the decision is easy, because this is about public health, it’s about keeping people safe, it’s about preventing COVID hotspots…

…I think we need to act on what the governor has given us. We can’t assume that there’s gonna be a special [session]. We can’t assume that the House is gonna decide to agree with us at some point. We need to vote on what we have in front of us. And I think we need to vote for it.

Sen. Chap Petersen: “I would ask the gentleman if he thinks that postponing the election in May will save lives, wouldn’t he agree that postponing the election in June will certainly save lives, because that’s a statewide primary?”

Sen. Surovell: “I would say to the gentleman that we can only go off the information that we have, and right now, they’re projected to pass the peak in the next week and we’ll be on the downswing. And we have time to deal with that situation when it arises. But the situation we have in front of us doesn’t deal with the June…20th primary, it only deals with May.”

Sen. Petersen: “Would you agree that the words ‘past the peak’ and ‘the peak of the pandemic’ tends to be a somewhat variable term?”

Sen. Surovell: “I would agree that it depends on whose model you look at. The models are shifted. The models have actually gotten better over the last three weeks. And so to the extent it’s variable and it involves an unknown, I guess you could call it variable.”

Sen. Petersen:  “If a locality has an election in which 80% of the voters vote absentee, and the number of voters that actually show up to the polling place are fewer than the number of people that will show up at the supermarket grocery store on that same day, would he agree that we should not shut down the grocery store that day as well as the voting place in order to quote-unquote be safe?”

Sen. Surovell: “What I would say to the senator…is that we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know who’s going to show up. All we know is that some people are going to show up, and the more time we push this out, the more time we have for people to vote by mail and not less. And I can tell you that at least the experience in the two jurisdictions I represent, absentee ballots are not running ahead of where they were last year, the year before, they’re actually running behind.”

Sen. Petersen: “Would the gentleman not agree it’s worth our time to have a special session so we can actually adopt regulations for voter safety, which we do not have on the books right now for the State Board of Elections…as opposed to just moving dates around?”

Sen. Surovell: “What I would say to the senator is that I would be perfectly open to having a special session, provided that I had insurances that my colleagues on the other side both chambers, whose votes would be required to do anything on emergency basis, because it requires 80% vote, requires waive read, and the governor is on board with a specific plan. And right now there is no plan; all we have in front of us is a decision to move this to November, and I think that’s the better course of action.”

Sen. Petersen: “Would he not agree with me that if we defeated this amendment that the governor – being a physician and a man of honor – would recognize that this is a public crisis and would send down special legislation or call a special session so that we can address it?”

Sen. Surovell: “I would say…he could also move…the town elections by two weeks to May 19th, I believe. He has that statutory authority do that right now; that’s one measure he could take, but I’m not confident that’s far enough. But number two, given all the speeches I’ve heard…about what a horrible idea…this November election is, I’m not confident that we’re gonna be able to reach a conclusion. And also, the body down the hall…has already made their policy choice, and they have not made clear that they will do anything. And so we’re making a lot of assumptions and crossing our fingers and hoping a lot, and I’m not confident that it’s gonna work out.”

In this final video, Sen. Petersen moves to pass by – aka, kill – the amendment.

“You know all of us are here for a moment in time. And I respect the passion of my colleague, my former law partner from eastern Fairfax. But you know, there’s a time and a place that you just sometimes have to take a stand. And we’re all scared – I’m scared, I’m scared for my mom, I’m scared for my in-laws, I’m scared like anybody else. But you know what, sometimes you have to make a stand. And we have to make decisions based on science. And we also have to make decisions understanding that we’re a democracy, ok? And part of democracy is holding elections. And simply ignoring a local charter and moving elections to a date off in November – when again, science doesn’t tell us that that’s going to be any safer of a date. We have to tackle this problem; the only way to do that is through a special session. So I’ve taken my mask off if people want to attack me on social media, here’s my face. But the bottom line is we need to take a stand. We cannot make decisions based on hysteria. We have got to understand we’re a democracy, we’re a constitutional democracy, and our local governments play an important role in that and we should not treat them as pawns in order to just gain plaudits on social media sites. So I ask that you support this motion to take by this amendment, and let’s approach the governor and ask him to fix this issue and let’s get a solution. Thank you very much.”

Finally, check out the press release from Sen. Petersen, below, discussing two bills he’s drafted to 1) move local elections from May 5 to June 16; and 2) move party primaries from June 23 to July 28. Personally, I can see the logic in this, but I’m not clear how it would get done in time, given that May 5 is in under two weeks, and also given the logitical, health and other hurdles to holding another special session in coming days/weeks. But I *do* agree that we don’t know if things will be any better, vis-a-vis the COVID-19 pandemic, in a few weeks or even in a few months. And yes, democracy is absolutely crucial, something we absolutely must not sacrifice or weaken, even in the midst of a pandemic. So…yes, I agree with Sen. Petersen on all that, but I also agree that we have to do everything we can to keep voters and poll workers safe.

Ultimately, I’d like an even better option (Plan C?), which would be to make it as easy as possible for people to vote by mail, or maybe in person from their car, or even online (we can bank online, why can’t we vote online?). But whether these things can be implemented in time for May or June elections, I don’t know. As for the crucial November elections…let’s make damn sure we get those right, which probably means a special session at some point to discuss and debate the options.


Press Release: Petersen Legislation Addresses Upcoming Local Elections and Primary Voting, Requests Call for Special Session

RICHMOND, Va. – Democratic State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) announced that he has drafted two bills to accomplish the following:  (1)  move local elections from May 5 to June 16 and (2) move party primaries from June 23 to July 28.  The legislation specifically instructions the State Board of Elections to enact guidelines protecting voters and Election officials during the pandemic.

Petersen stated that the two bills would rectify a number of issues with upcoming elections.  The first bill would allow local elections to take place prior to the June 30 deadline, thus complying with local charters.  It would also allow localities to count thousands of absentee ballots that have already been cast.  Petersen noted that his own hometown of Fairfax City was on pace to receive more absentee ballots for the May 2020 election than it did during the entire 2018 cycle.

The second bill would move back the party primaries to July 28 and also extend the time for third parties to get on the ballot for the November election.  Right now, with the statewide quarantine, there is no practical way for candidates to get on the ballot by circulating petitions.  “As of today, we have made no accommodation for third parties to appear on the November ballot,” Petersen stated.  “Their participation in these elections is critical to our democracy.”

Finally, Petersen’s bills require the State Board of Elections to come up with regulations to ensure the health and safety of voters and election workers.  “We are a democracy.  These elections need to forward, but we also need to build in protections for the public and our volunteers.  Simply moving dates around doesn’t do that, especially since there is no agreed timeline for the pandemic.”

Petersen’s two bills can only be taken up by a special session which must be called by the Governor. Petersen had the bills drafted prior to the reconvened session, however, the Governor chose to go forward with its own alternative — moving spring elections to the fall — which failed to pass the Assembly.

If no special session is called, then the Governor by law can defer local elections by two weeks or until May 19, as part of his emergency powers.  He has already implemented that for the primaries which are currently deferred until June 23.

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