RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — All eyes are on the Electoral College this week as former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump race—slowly—towards the 270-vote finish line.
Meanwhile, a group of states is trying to do away with the centuries-old structure and switch to a popular vote system ahead of future presidential races. The question is will Virginia join them?
Scrutiny was reignited in 2016 when Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College and, therefore, the presidency. This year, as unofficial results showed Biden leading Trump by millions of overall votes, fresh criticism emerged.
In the near future, Virginia’s General Assembly is expected to reconsider joining the coalition that could change how presidents are chosen. According to the movement’s website, 15 states have already committed to the compact pledging its share of electors to the candidate who wins a majority nationwide.
In other words–if the proposal wins approval–Virginia would award its 13 Electoral College votes to the country’s choice for president rather than the state’s.
For the agreement to work though, the coalition needs enough states to join to reach a combined 270 votes. So far, the group has garnered 196 electors and hopes to reach their goal ahead of the 2024 race.
The commonwealth could add to the tally if a bill from Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) passes. Levine said he is pushing for the change because, under the current system, swing states have too much influence over the outcome.
“In a democracy, a majority would choose the president. The president would be of the people, by the people, for the people. That is not our current system,” Levine said. “I believe losers should never take power.”
Republicans like Del. Israel O’Quinn (R-Bristol) have argued eliminating the Electoral College would allow candidates to ignore rural areas and only focus on the most densely populated states and cities.
“Essentially turning over the presidential election to two or three states is the exact opposite of the foundations of the U.S. Constitution,” O’Quinn said. “I’ve seen and heard a lot of silly ideas in my nine years in the General Assembly and this one ranks near the top.”
It’s not clear whether the bill has the votes to pass, even though Democrats control the legislature for the first time in decades.
When Levine’s bill was considered in the regular session earlier this year, it passed in the House of Delegates but the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee deferred action on it. P&E Committee Chair Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) said that was partly because, even with Virginia’s support, it was clear there wouldn’t be enough states signed on for the compact to apply to the 2020 Election.
Deeds declined to take a public stance on the issue in a phone interview on Thursday but he said it’s worth looking at.
“I think there is a pretty good argument that, if we really are a country that recognizes the principal of ‘one man, one vote,’ the majority ought to rule,” Deeds said.
“I don’t think we have the votes to pass this today on a bipartisan basis,” he furthered.
Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat from Roanoke, said he supports eliminating the Electoral College but he thinks the compact approach is unconstitutional.
“It violates Article Two, Section One of the Constitution and I say that as a lawyer, not a Democrat,” Edwards said. “I just don’t see how you get around that.”
Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), who is also a practicing attorney, pointed out that changing the U.S. Constitution is extremely difficult.
“So this is the easiest work around,” Surovell said, adding that he supports the push for a popular vote. “Wyoming has a third of the population of Fairfax County but they have three Electoral College votes. It is insane.”
Deeds said, because the bill was continued and not killed in the regular session, he could call a special hearing to consider the proposal this month. He said he’s not likely to do so, especially since the General Assembly is just wrapping up its longest special session in recent memory.
Deeds assured the bill will be considered in the 2021 regular session–if not before.
“It is going to come up and it will be subject to a vote in our committee,” Deeds said.
Levine said, if the General Assembly passes his bill, Gov. Ralph Northam would still need to sign off. Northam’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on Thursday.
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