Chap Petersen was wrong — we shouldn’t hold elections in a pandemic

By Jay Swanson:

I like Sen. Chap Petersen (D- 34) a lot. One of the first votes I ever cast when I turned 18 was for him. But he made the wrong decision when he sided with the Republicans to not move Virginia’s May 5th municipal elections to November. The move had been suggested by our Democratic governor—and medical doctor—Ralph Northam, citing concerns about coronavirus. It passed the House of Delegates, and would have passed the Senate too, had Sen. Petersen not led the charge against it.

[Ed. Note: After legislators failed on Apr. 22  to approve his proposal to postpone elections until Nov. 3, Gov. Northam announced on Apr. 24 that he would use emergency executive authority to move municipal elections two weeks — from May 5 to May 19.]  

The need for such a move should be obvious. Consider the debacle that occurred when Wisconsin held its primary election in the midst of this pandemic. So many people were afraid of catching or spreading the virus that the state couldn’t recruit enough poll workers, meaning that dozens of polling locations had to be closed. The few that remained open were overwhelmed by voters, many of whom had to wait for hours in line to cast their vote. Public health experts are still trying to figure out how many new cases of the virus the Wisconsin election caused. We don’t need to see that in Virginia.

In addition to spreading the virus, holding municipal elections in May will damage local Democratic organizations across the commonwealth by making it easier for Republican-backed candidates to win. While these are technically nonpartisan elections, the Virginia Republican Party has historically used local government as a training ground for its future politicians. If we had moved elections to November, the higher turnout would have likely helped us elect Democrats to those positions. There is a reason, after all, that every Republican in the Senate agreed with Petersen’s push to not move the election to November.

Over the years I have enjoyed following Chap’s career. I have always liked his lively and erudite writings and speeches, on topics as diverse as history, literature, and politics. But I disagree with him on this. And, unfortunately, I’ve found myself disagreeing with him more and more. I disagreed when he voted with the Republicans to kill the assault weapons ban. As someone who lived in Charlottesville during the Unite the Right Rally, I disagreed with him when he made it harder for local governments to take down Confederate monuments. And I disagreed with him when he made the case against paid sick leave (an issue more important now than ever).

These disagreements matter. Democrats control the General Assembly, but not by much. If we want to keep the promises we made in 2019, we need to stay united. Republicans are ready to pounce on any hint of disagreement within our ranks. Let’s not give them the chance.

Photo: Pandemic- related disorders caused Milwaukee voters to wait for hours to cast their vote on Apr. 7. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Jay Swanson (twitter: @jayswanson) is a lawyer with deep roots in Fairfax County




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