The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Youngkin’s move to force Loudoun school board elections called ‘troubling’

Glenn Youngkin on the campaign trail in Ashburn, Va., in June. Youngkin, now Virginia governor, has made the Loudoun County School Board a constant political target. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s attempt to force the entire Loudoun County School Board to face new elections this fall, shortening the terms of most of its members, stunned many state political observers as an intrusion into local election integrity without modern precedent in Virginia.

The plan — aimed at a school board that Youngkin has made a constant political target — initially won approval from the Republican-controlled House of Delegates during a reconvened General Assembly session Wednesday. But the Democratic-controlled Senate killed it, with one Republican senator joining the vote against a measure he called “troubling.”

“We can’t just get to a place where, because we so oppose someone, we’re going to unilaterally shorten their term,” Sen. David R. Suetterlein (R-Roanoke) said in an interview Friday.

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Democrats were far harsher, with many calling the effort a threat to democracy and one comparing Youngkin (R) to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While that rhetoric was unusually heated even by the standards of General Assembly floor debates, some experts said any attempt to limit the term of a duly elected official over a political disagreement poses fundamental problems.

“From a democracy standpoint, it’s just bad,” said Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University whose area of study includes elections and legislative organizations. “For governors to be getting involved in changing the rules in a local election — it just runs counter to all of the goals we have for how elections and democracies are supposed to run.”

Youngkin attempted to amend a routine bill aimed at enabling the Loudoun County School Board to stagger its terms of office, which had passed the House unanimously and cleared the Senate with no opposition and one abstention. In Youngkin’s substitute version of the bill, all nine members of the board would be subject to election this fall. That would cut short by one year the terms of seven members.

Va. Gov. Youngkin seeks new elections this year on Loudoun School Board

“Holding elected officials accountable is the cornerstone of a strong democracy,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a written response to questions from The Post. “The Governor thinks there’s no one better to decide the fate of the school board members than the voters in Loudoun County.”

Controversy over the Loudoun County School Board and its handling of issues related to race, gender and two sexual assaults fired up the base of the Republican Party last year and helped power Youngkin’s win in what had been an increasingly blue state. Youngkin actually lost the vote in Loudoun last fall, but the county became shorthand for a conservative parents’ movement that was amplified by conservative media and raised Youngkin’s national profile.

In her statement, Porter made plain that Youngkin had intended to punish the board with his amendment: “After the Loudoun County School Board has failed to address sexual assaults incidents in their district, they have continuously let down students and parents in Virginia. The governor … is disappointed in the Senate’s move to reject an amendment focused on increasing transparency and accountability at the Loudoun County School Board. At a time when parents are speaking up across the country, this amendment reflected the will of Virginia’s parents.”

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But A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor who oversaw the drafting of the latest version of the Virginia Constitution, adopted in 1971, called Youngkin’s amendment “a troubling proposal,” and said it was likely without modern precedent.

“It seems in any event a dubious idea, whether it has precedent or not,” Howard said.

He counted at least three ways the proposal appeared to run afoul of the state constitution. The first problem, Howard said, is that the Virginia Constitution lays out “zones of authority” over education among the state Board of Education, local school boards and the General Assembly. School boards are responsible for supervision of schools. That “seems to me to imply a judgment that the state is not free — least of all, the governor is not free — to sort of play around with school board elections,” he said.

Next, the constitution specifically prohibits a type of law known as a “bill of attainder,” which is aimed at punishing specific individuals. “So for the General Assembly to enact a law that singles out members of the school board for removal … seems to me rather like punishment, which is something legislation is not meant to do,” Howard said.

He said the amendment also could violate the constitution’s prohibition against legislation aimed at affecting elections in specific locales.

Before voting Wednesday, Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) asked House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) to make a parliamentary ruling on that very issue, asking whether the amendment should be classified as “special” legislation, a legal term meaning it is aimed at specific individuals or small groups. After pausing nearly half an hour to consult with other lawmakers, Gilbert issued a ruling that said the amendment could proceed but without directly addressing Simon’s question.

Some types of “special” legislation are allowed, as long as they are passed with a two-thirds vote. Gilbert ruled that the amendment did not require a two-thirds vote under Article 4, Section 12 of the constitution because it was introduced by the governor.

But Simon pressed Gilbert about whether it was “special” under a different part of the constitution — Article 4, Section 14 — that states the General Assembly cannot enact targeted, special legislation that involves “registering voters, conducting elections, or designating the places of voting.”

“If you can [rule] under Section 12, why in the world wouldn’t you do so under Section 14?” Simon asked.

“I decline to do so,” Gilbert replied.

Gilbert’s office declined a request to comment further.

House and Senate Republicans charged that Democrats had done essentially the same thing as Youngkin when they passed a law last year changing the date of local elections from May to November.

Democrats countered that their measure covered the entire state, not just one locality, and that it actually extended the terms of affected officials. The law is aimed at increasing turnout for local elections by including them on the far more popular fall ballot, which also features state or federal races.

In the Senate, Republicans brushed aside complaints of election interference.

“We’re going to give the voters the option for a clean sweep,” Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham) said in a floor speech in which he pushed back on Democrats’ claim that the change would subvert the will of Loudoun voters. “How on earth does it undermine the will of the electorate to give the voters an opportunity to vote?”

Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), who as a lawyer represents the family of a sexual assault victim fighting the Loudoun County School Board, said he supported the amendment as a way of removing officials who he felt had badly mishandled a pair of such cases.

“For any elected official to embark on policies that actually result in the harm, the physical harm, of a child — nay, two children — then they should be out of office,” he said in a heated floor speech. “They need to be swept aside.”

When Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond) suggested the proper way to seek early removal is instead with a recall petition, Stanley said no.

“Recall petitions create more turmoil and conflict,” Stanley said, adding: “Quite frankly, I think it is well and good for democracy to have these amendments occur so we can get very competent people who love their community to go in there with an open mind and an open heart.”

Suetterlein, the lone Republican to vote against the amendment, took issue with Democrats’ harshest claims that the proposal was anti-democratic. He noted that Great Britain, Canada and other democracies regularly call snap elections in an effort to make government more responsive to “the will of the governed.”

But, he continued, the United States is a republic — “which is preferable and leads to better and more stable government. And fixed terms are a major part of that.”

The Loudoun County School Board, which had opposed the change in its elections, issued a statement thanking the Senate for supporting “the voters of Loudoun County” and rejecting “the Governor’s attempt to usurp their Constitutional authority.”

Del. David Reid (D-Loudoun), who sponsored the original bill, said he had gotten no warning from the governor’s office about the proposed changes. Since the proposal came out, though, Reid said constituents deluged his office with concerns. “Responses have been running 99 to one in opposition to the governor’s amendments,” he said.

While citizens have initiated recall efforts against some members of the county school board, Reid had heard of no calls for a new set of elections.

Victor, the GMU political scientist, said she sees irony in the situation — Youngkin, who ran in part on a pledge to ensure election integrity and has made empowering parents his mantra, now attempting to cast aside a valid election.

“This is legitimately trying to usurp the authority of local governments to run their own elections,” Victor said. “This certainly seems like an example of executive overreach.”

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Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist, said Virginia is feeling the same shock waves that have hit national politics. “One of the aftereffects of the Trump presidency has been greater willingness to abandon what had been political norms,” Farnsworth said. “To pick and choose which school boards and which elected officials you want to punish by shorting their terms, why that’s fundamentally a violation of the way this process works.”

Political observers note that Youngkin made this attempt knowing it would fail in the Democratic Senate — and perhaps with Loudoun voters if early elections had been ordered, given that the county overwhelmingly supported Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor who was seeking a comeback, over Youngkin.

Youngkin “lost Loudoun County by 11 points. … He ran worse than [Ken] Cuccinelli in Loudoun,” said longtime Richmond political analyst Bob Holsworth, referring to the conservative firebrand McAuliffe defeated in 2013.

“Loudoun has become this cultural trope that has more of an impact outside of the county than inside the county,” Holsworth said. “You would have thought it was ground zero of the election. It wasn’t close.”

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But wading into Loudoun’s K-12 culture wars helped Youngkin fire up the Trump base in other parts of the state, where they shattered turnout records and helped carry him to victory. And now it could help him stand out from the crowd of other culture warriors potentially running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. So Youngkin, who during the campaign balanced his appeals to Trump’s base by ducking some hot-button issues and playing up his suburban basketball-dad persona, is leaning harder than ever into those divisive topics, Farnsworth said.

“What worked for the governor to get elected in Virginia — being somewhat vague on policy — isn’t as useful when it comes to building your national profile,” Farnsworth said. “And when you’re competing against Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott for national Republican attention, shooting hoops isn’t going to cut the mustard.”