Virginia’s state senate had a narrow Democratic majority, with 21 Democrats and 19 Republicans. Then, on Jan. 1, Republican State Senator Ben Chafin died. Virginia’s Democratic governor deliberately delayed filling the seat, so that progressive bills will be able to pass the state legislature more easily, and without being moderated by the amendment process.
Keeping the seat vacant will make it easier to pass progressive bills even when not all Democrats vote for them — such as when a relatively moderate Democratic senator votes against a bill to release criminals earlier. That occasionally happened in 2020, such as when a Democratic senator voted against lowering the age of geriatric release for some criminals to age 50.
Keeping the seat vacant ignores the governor’s duty to call special elections to fill vacancies that result from a legislator dying. Virginia Code Section § 24.2-216 provides: “The Governor shall issue a writ of election to fill the [House or Senate] vacancy. If the vacancy occurs during the session of the General Assembly, the Speaker of the House of Delegates or the President pro tempore of the Senate, as the case may be, shall issue the writ unless the respective house by rule or resolution shall provide otherwise.”
“Shall” is mandatory language, requiring the governor to act. The special election could easily have been scheduled for Jan. 12 or 19. After the writ is issued, it has to be transmitted to the registrars. The election then has to be advertised by the registrar for a minimum of 10 days, and the election must be held on a Tuesday.
But Jan. 12 is now here, and no special election has been scheduled. [UPDATE: A special election was announced this afternoon, for the ridiculously late date of March 23 — after the regular legislative session ends! That’s nearly three months after the seat became vacant. By contrast, Governor Northam filled a Democratic seat in Prince William County less than a month after a Democratic legislator resigned. Delegate Jennifer Foy resigned from the House of Delegates on December 8, 2020. Her successor was elected in a special election on January 6, 2021.].
The statute obviously requires the governor to promptly issue a writ of election. He has the duty to do so, unless the vacancy occurs during the session, in which case the president of the Senate would have to issue it. The governor is flouting the law.
In response to the governor’s foot-dragging, the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution on Jan. 11 calling on the governor to fill the seat and “schedule a special election.”