Elections bills roundup

February 21, 2019

In addition to measures to authorize early voting and reform the redistricting process, the General Assembly considered a variety of other measures dealing with elections administration this session.  An overview of some of the bills of interest to local governments is provided below.

Removal of general registrars

HB 2034 (McGuire) proposes to change the procedure for removal of a general registrar.  Currently, a general registrar may be removed by majority vote of the local electoral board or by a circuit court upon petition by the majority of the State Board of Elections, if the local electoral board refuses to remove the registrar and the State Board finds that failure to remove the registrar has a material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office or an election.  Under the bill, a local electoral board would have to file a petition with the circuit court in order to remove a registrar, and the registrar would receive counsel from the state Division of Risk Management for his or her defense.  VACo took no position on the bill in its initial hearing; however, VACo became involved in the bill after crossover, when an amendment was added in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee that would have required the county attorney to provide counsel to the electoral board in proceedings to remove a registrar.  Since a county attorney often provides counsel to both the local electoral board and the general registrar, the county attorney would be unable to represent one client (the electoral board) in a proceeding against another (the general registrar); in this scenario, the locality would likely have to bear the costs of contracting for outside counsel.  After raising this concern with the patron and interested parties, the patron requested that the amendment be removed on the Senate floor.  VACo is grateful to the bill’s patron, Delegate John McGuire, and the Chair of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, Senator Jill Vogel, for their willingness to address local governments’ concerns with the bill.

Misassigned voters

Legislation developed over summer 2018 that was intended to address the issue of misassigned voters failed to report from House Privileges and Elections on February 15, but several bills addressing other aspects of the problem are moving forward.  SB 1102 (Peake) would have allowed localities in circumstances where the boundary lines traditionally used by the localities are close to, but not exactly aligned with, the legislative district lines (which are based on Census tracts) to adopt ordinances with the agreed-upon locality boundaries and report them to the Census Bureau and several state entities.  The legislative district lines would then conform to the boundary lines agreed upon between the localities.  The bill provided for review by the State Board of Elections as well as an “appeals” process for voters who believed they were incorrectly assigned.  VACo was part of a group convened by Senator Mark Peake to work on the legislation in summer 2018 and testified in favor of the bill in both its Senate and House hearings.  The bill failed over concerns about allowing localities to move legislative lines, and in particular concerns that any movement of Congressional district boundaries would run afoul of requirements that those districts be as exactly equal in population as possible.

As reported in Capitol Contact this week, a pair of bills that address this issue from another angle by making voluntary boundary adjustments easier and less expensive (by allowing the use of GIS maps rather than a full survey) have passed the General Assembly and await action by the Governor.  VACo supports these bills.

Two other bills seek to prevent future instances of voter misassignment by providing state assistance with GIS mapping.  SB 1018 (Chase), as passed by the Senate, requires localities to review voter assignments for correctness prior to the 2020 general election; the state would provide assistance with the review, including the provision of GIS maps for localities without in-house GIS capability; the Senate has since accepted a substitute conforming the bill to HB 2760 (Sickles), which would require a similar review process in future rounds of local redistricting.  Delegate Mark Sickles amended the bill at VACo’s request to provide that the state would assist with the development of GIS maps for localities without in-house GIS staff.

Election security

HB 2178 (Sickles) directs the State Board of Elections to promulgate security standards for access to VERIS, the state’s voter registration system, and authorizes the state Department of Elections to limit a locality’s access to VERIS for failure to comply with security standards.  VACo worked with the patron and the Department of Elections to add language to the bill requiring local participation in the development of the security standards as well as ongoing local participation in an advisory committee to consult on updates to security standards.  The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee added language requiring legislators to be part of the work group developing the security standards; this amendment is likely to be discussed in a conference committee.

Split precincts

HJ 591 (Cole), a Constitutional amendment specifying that the General Assembly may make technical adjustments to legislative districts subsequent to decennial redistricting in order to fix split precincts, has passed both chambers.  VACo has historically supported the ability to address split precincts in this fashion.  Another approach, SB 1087 (Obenshain), is likely headed to a conference committee, as was the case last year.  SB 1087 would require localities to adjust precinct lines after the General Assembly completes decennial redistricting so that precincts are not split; a locality could apply to the State Board of Elections for a waiver to operate a split precinct if it was unable to adjust precinct lines to avoid splitting the precinct.  VACo has expressed concerns about the feasibility of this approach, as many localities cannot wait for the General Assembly to complete its redistricting process to start redistricting at the local level.

June primary date

HB 1615 (Landes) and SB 1243 (Reeves), which would have delayed the June primary from the second to the third Tuesday in June, were both defeated on the Senate floor.

VACo Contact: Katie Boyle

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