Mister Davies Goes to Richmond: One Day Staring at Virginia’s Electoral College

What actually happens during an Electoral College signing frenzy in Virginia? And why don’t they call it a frenzy? That would be a lot more fun.

On Monday, December 19th, 2016, I was fortunate enough to be able to take two hours off of work at lunchtime and watch Virginia’s Electoral College from a seat in the Senate Gallery at the Virginia Capitol Building with my friend John. In mid-November, we’d both gone through the extremely difficult ticket application process of sending an email asking “Can I have a ticket please?” The tickets came in the mail about a week before the big show.

I was eager to go, not because I expected anything abnormal to happen, but because I realized I knew nothing about the process or what actually would happen. Virginia law is extremely vague on any rules about the Electoral College and I wanted to see for myself. This is a vestigial but essential component of our constitutional republic and the general attitude towards it seems to be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

On the big day, I met John by the George Washington Statue after catching several Electrodes and Christmas-hat Pikachu on the north end of the Capitol grounds. We walked downhill to the visitors’ entrance on Bank St. where we navigated around protesters with whom I largely agree. We passed through security1 and proceeded through the labyrinthian halls of the Capitol building until some helpful workers guided us to the Senate Gallery elevator.

As we passed through another metal detector, the guard gave us a brief rundown of the rules:

  • No talking
  • No standing
  • Nothing hanging anything from, or leaning over the front edge
  • No flash photography
  • No electronic transmission (i.e. no iPhones)

The Gallery seats about 100 people and every one of them was breaking the no smartphone rule. There was tweeting, facebooking, Pokémon GO playing (not by me), and general internetting. The people pretended to hide it from the guards and the guards pretended not to notice.

The proceedings began with pleasantries from James Alcorn, Chairperson of the Virginia Board of Elections, who then invited Secretary of the Commonwealth, Kelly Thomasson, to give us a history lesson on the Electoral College. Then Virginia Supreme Court Justice William Mims swore in Virginia’s 13 Electors as constitutional officers, promising to support both the Constitution of the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Now, the next part was super exciting for a parliamentary procedure nerd like myself. As far as I can tell2, there are no standing rules for Electoral College business. The Electors had to create their own rules from scratch! The first Elector alphabetically, Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg, was made temporary president by default, and presided as the Electors elected themselves a President and Secretary. They then adopted their order of business, which happened to be handed to them by the bureaucrats in the room, but, but they could’ve adopted whatever order or business or rules that they wanted! If the Electoral College had wanted to, they could’ve required a minimum of one hour debate in the form of Hamilton-style rap battles. They didn’t, but they could have. And that makes me happy.

What actually happened was that they called for a Roll Call vote. Each Elector stood up, stated their name and where in Virginia they are from, and casted their electoral votes for Hillary Clinton of New York for President and Tim Kaine of Virginia for Vice President. Some just cast their votes, others gave little speeches first. Everyone said “historic” a lot.

Then the signing. Oh my lord the signing. The Electors had to sign a ton of documents and a ton of copies of those documents. The President of the Electoral College summed it up by saying ”you’re going to feel like you’re buying a house today.” Instead of take-one-pass-it-down, each Elector signed all thirteen copies of one document, then the stack was passed to the next Elector, until all of them had finished that document and then they’d start the same process with the next document. This took the vast majority of the two-hour session. Even Supreme Court Justice Mims was playing on his phone during this part.

When the signing finally finished, the President of the Electoral College adjourned the meeting, and the Electors were invited by a representative of the Library of Virginia to view their archive of the Electoral College vote of 1792, which includes a signature from Patrick Henry. John and I filed out of the Gallery with the rest of the observers and went back to work.

I’m glad I went. While I think an amendment to eliminate the Electoral College completely and elect our President by direct popular vote makes more sense and is more fitting with the concept of ”one person, one vote”, while we have this system we should pay it more mind. Most of the rules of the Electoral College are by tradition, not written laws. In a future December, 13 Virginians, while somewhat bound by oath, could pretty much do whatever they wanted for good or for evil. This is the system we have and we should either change it, or give it the attention it deserves.

  1. Apparently, my ID badge for my state employer allows me to skip this security line. Who knew? 
  2. I’m not a legal historian or scholar, I’m just a layperson who does cursory searches of http://lis.virginia.gov/. Please send me a note if you know of exact rules I missed. 

Go Do This: GardenFest of Light 2016

It’s back, and it’s a good one. Here’s why we recommend it for you and/or your family.

What it is

GardenFest of Light is a winter wonderland slash Main Street Electrical Parade slash garden tour put on by Dominion and Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

Only this year, you can add another slash to that—GardenFest of Light reminded me very strongly of Rainbow Road. You know, that super-tough stage at the end of each MarioKart game that mesmerized you with its multi-colored beauty but was quick to drop you into space if you made any sudden moves?

Wait, don’t be scared, GardenFest doesn’t drop you into space, unless you count a wayward child who might wander into an unlit spot and start wolf-howling (like mine does) until you find them.

Basically, you buy a ticket, walk through a sea of light exhibits (that is, made mostly with tiny string lights) in all sorts of shapes and sizes, buy some hot chocolate halfway through, and basically let your children run around in the dark with their little pink cheeks and dangling mittens.

This year’s theme is Living Color, and it’s simply gorgeous. Pinks, blues, reds, yellows, greens, whites, purples—it’s all there and it’s pretty disco-y delicious. This isn’t exactly a Christmas thing. There’s no lit-up Santa, no reindeer, it’s not that thing that happens up at Meadow Event Park. It’s truly a work of art.

That thing at Meadow Event Park may be awesome, by the way, I don’t really have any idea.

Who’s behind it

Dominion, the people who deliver our electricity, and Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, the people who bring us a lot of beautiful flora and even fauna (those butterflies!). Also a ton of volunteers who help set up all the lights.

Where it is

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is at 1800 Lakeside Avenue on Northside. If you’re arriving from the south, keep right, even though you’ll be turning left. There’s a sudden turn lane situation at Hilliard that screws me (and everyone else in front of me) over every time. You won’t miss the entrance, there are police officers helping to direct traffic, and it’ll be where everyone else is going as well.

When it is

Nightly admission through January 9, excepting December 24 and 25. Members get in free on January 9! Hours are 5 – 10pm.

There are also various nights in which events happen, like caroling and crafting and all sorts of things. Check those out here.

How much it costs

If you’re a Lewis Ginter member—something I highly recommend—you greatly benefit with a deeply discounted ticket. Member adults are $7, non-member adults are $13, kids are $5 (members) and $8 (non-members). Littles under 3 are free.

It can add up to an expensive night, particularly if you partake in the hot refreshments. I’d argue that it’s worth it, my child thoroughly enjoyed himself, and not just because there was a room with an impressive model train situation.

You will take this exact photo, I would bet money on it.

You can buy tickets ahead of time online, but you’ll have to pay a convenience fee. You might as well just buy them on-site. The lines aren’t that long.

You do not need cash at the hot beverages stand or anywhere else. Hooray, 2016!

Other things to note

There are free cruisin’ strollers that I recommend making use of if your child is under three. It’s a ton of walking and potentially a ton of cold walking. If they get tired and refuse to move their little legs anymore, you’ll have to do a LOT of carrying. Plus it can be an easy way to keep track of them if they start wilding out.

Lewis Ginter is doing a social media contest, and you can win a membership and other stuff! More about that here, but basically you follow @lewisginter on Instagram, post a pic, and tag them as well as #GardenFest. Good luck, and be careful around those sharp Rainbow Road turns.