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.