RICHMOND — Republican leaders in Virginia’s General Assembly have been asked to wait a year before putting several proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot, amid concerns that the GOP-backed measures could lead to longer wait times at the polls during the 2016 presidential election.
Registrars from across the state have asked Republicans in both chambers for the delay. No decisions have been made, and some Republicans have raised questions about the feasibility of waiting a year. But a liberal group that opposes two of the proposed amendments — one would promote charter schools, the other aims to curb the power of unions — contends the issue is not just alive but being driven by politics instead of concern about voting lines.
The proposed amendments could have a better shot at passing in 2017, even with a race for governor that year, political observers note, given that Democratic turnout is expected to be higher in November.
Indeed, Democratic turnout tends to swell in presidential years: Thirty-nine percent of the Virginia voters who turned out for the past two presidential elections called themselves Democrats, while the figure for Republicans was 32 and 33 percent. But the electorate’s Republican-Democratic split was within five percentage points in the 2009 and 2013 governor’s races, according to exit polls conducted at the time for The Washington Post.
Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA, criticized what she called Republicans’ “absurd attempts to manipulate the amendment process for purely partisan political goals.”
“We see Republicans’ johnny-come-lately concern about voting lines for what it really is: crocodile tears,” she said in an email to The Post. “If Republicans were serious about making our elections more accessible and tackling long lines at the polls, they could have supported any one of the dozens of proposals to address the problem that we’ve brought before them in the past 3 years.”
Matthew Moran, a spokesman for House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), was dismissive of Scholl’s criticism, saying, “Ms. Scholl never met a trite attack on Republicans she didn’t like.”
Moran confirmed that the registrars’ concerns were on the radars of Howell and others, including Del. Mark L. Cole (R-Spotsylvania), chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee.
“The Speaker, House leaders and Chairman Cole are aware of the concerns brought by the registrars,” Moran said. “They have not made any final decisions on how to proceed with the constitutional amendments.”
But Moran also noted that House Republicans plan to hold a news conference to draw attention to the charter school proposal.
Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier), chairwoman of the Senate Privileges and Elections committee, agreed that having amendments on the ballot in a presidential year could amount to “a real hardship” for elections officials.
But she also said a delay is not something she or her committee could grant on their own. Legislators sponsoring the proposed amendments would have to withdraw bills they have already spent years pushing.
“We understand their concerns, but as a practical matter, I don’t believe I have the authority to go to Senate patrons to strike something from the docket,” she said.
Political observers said it wouldn’t be unusual for the GOP to take advantage of changes in electorial behavior.
“Politicians know full well that an electorate can be different from one year to the next and they plan accordingly,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist.
To change Virginia’s constitution, a proposed amendment must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive years, with an election in between. It then needs approval from voters in a referendum.
The constitution requires that the referendum not take place any sooner than 90 days after the legislature approves it for the second time. It does not state that it must be on the ballot for the soonest possible Election Day, although that has been the practice. It was unclear if a referendum had ever been put off for one or more election cycles.
A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia legal scholar who was chief draftsman of the state constitution when it was revamped in 1971, said he thinks the legislature has the authority to hold the referendum as long as it wants.
The constitution “is silent on . . . how long they can wait after 90 days,” he said. “Where it’s silent, typically the legislature calls the shots.”
Three proposed amendments that won approval from the GOP-controlled General Assembly last year and appear to be on track to do so again this year, meaning the could be on the ballot in November. The proposed amendments do not go to the governor, so Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) would have no opportunity to veto any that he might oppose.
One of the proposals would grant the state Board of Education the authority to establish charter schools within local school districts across the state. That power currently rests with local school boards, which have been resistant to them in Virginia.
Another amendment, known as a “right-to-work” measure, would ensure that employees are not forced to join a union as a condition of employment. State law prohibits that practice, but the amendment would enshrine that in the constitution.
Scholl’s group opposes both of those proposed amendments. It takes no position on the third, which would grant a real estate tax exemption to the spouse of police officers or other emergency responders killed in the line of duty.
In a letter to Cole, the president of the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia expressed concern about having the proposed amendments on the ballot in a presidential election year. Seventy-five percent of registered voters turned out in 2008 to send President Obama to the White House, and 72 percent came out in 2012 to give him a second term. Turnout dropped to 40 percent in 2009, when Republican Robert F. McDonnell won the governor’s race in a landslide. It was 43 percent in 2013, when McAuliffe narrowly beat then-attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II (R).
In his letter, VRAV President Tracy D. Howard expressed “grave concern” about putting those questions on the ballot in 2016, while also stressing that the organization takes no position on the merits of the proposals. He asked that they be put off until November 2017.
“The presidential election has the largest turnout of any election during a four-year election cycle and without an incumbent the turnout soars,” he wrote. “When voters are asked to vote on constitutional amendments at a presidential election, this causes serious delays in voting.”
Randy Wertz, a former president of the group and the general registrar for Montgomery County, said that voters who have bombarded with ads for presidential candidates are often stumped when they encounter relatively obscure ballot questions. He said they tend to stand at the voting machine for a long time, puzzling over the language, trying to do their civic duty.
“They’ll know everything there is to know about the candidates by November,” he said, “but they won’t know a thing about the amendments.”