Virginia bill on electoral college change appears headed for defeat

January 25, 2013

A Republican-backed bill to change the way Virginia awards its electoral college votes, and perhaps boost the GOP’s prospects in a state that has gone for Barack Obama two elections in a row, appears to be headed for defeat.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) came out against the measure Friday, as did two GOP senators who sit on the committee that will decide the bill’s fate next week.

“He believes Virginia’s existing system works just fine as it is,” McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said via e-mail. “He does not believe there is any need for a change.”

Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) said in an interview that she would not support the bill. “I think it’s not a good policy decision right now,” Vogel said. “I just think coming now it’s not very helpful, and pretty shortsighted.”

The opposition dooms the legislation’s chances of getting out of committee, which has eight Republicans and seven Democrats.

Diluting Virginia's minority vote

As that bill appeared likely to fail, Republicans’ surprise redistricting plan from earlier in the week remained in legislative limbo.

The electoral college and redistricting measures are among dozens of election-related bills filed this session. Democrats’ attempts to liberalize voting procedures have fallen flat, though a GOP-sponsored bill to allow people 65 and older to vote absentee has cleared the Senate.

For the third day in a row, the House delayed action on a bill to redraw state Senate districts across the commonwealth, pushing it off until Tuesday.

Senate Republicans sprang the bill on Democrats in the evenly divided chamber Monday, capitalizing on the absence of a Democratic senator who was in Washington for Obama’s inauguration. Taking up legislation calling for minor “technical adjustments” to House district boundaries, they amended it to revamp all 40 Senate districts.

The new map would take effect in 2015 and would create an additional majority-black district in Southside. But it also would disperse the black vote elsewhere, giving Republicans a chance to increase their sway over the chamber.

Democrats said the bill is an effort to dilute black voting power under the guise of boosting minority representation. Republicans say the legislation would correct gerrymandered districts drawn two years ago when Democrats controlled the chamber.

The move caught some Republicans, including McDonnell and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), off guard. And according to Republicans and Democrats familiar with McDonnell’s and Howell’s thinking, they are struggling to decide what to do with the legislation.

“To some extent, it’s a lose-lose proposition for them,” said one Democratic senator with knowledge of their deliberations.

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) has been quietly pressing Howell to kill the measure with a procedural move.

“It is going to simmer over the weekend,” said a legislator familiar with their deliberations but who is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “That [delay] was the speaker’s way of letting all sides flesh things out.”

In Virginia, as in most states, the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote receives all of that state’s electoral votes. A bill proposed Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson County) would instead apportion electoral votes by congressional district. Had Carrico’s bill been in place for the 2012 elections, Obama would have claimed four of the state’s electoral votes instead of all 13.

Obama’s 2008 win snapped a 40-year losing streak for Democrats in Virginia. During that long drought, some Democrats thought tinkering with the electoral college might be in order. They filed more than a dozen bills to that effect between 2001 and 2012.

All of those bills died in committee, the same fate Carrico’s measure is expected to meet next week before the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

In addition to Vogel, Sen. Ralph K. Smith (R-Roanoke) is also opposed to the legislation, according to the Roanoke Times. He could not be reached for comment, but he told the paper: “What if all states got to skewing it to their advantage?”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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