Ask Bob: Who Are Vt.'s Electors? And Other Questions About The 2021 Legislative Session
Health concerns associated with the coronavirus pandemic mean the 2021 legislative session will be quite different from previous years. But before lawmakers get together in January, Vermont's three electors to the Electoral College will meet in Montpelier on Monday, Dec. 14.
In the latest Ask Bob, VPR's senior political reporter Bob Kinzel answers questions about electors and the upcoming legislative session.
The statehouse is usually bursting with people and activity during the opening days of a new legislative session. How is COVID-19 affecting things this year?
It's going to have a huge impact. There are 150 members of the Vermont House, and it's been determined that the Statehouse is too small a space to bring all the House members back to Montpelier in a safe and socially-distanced way.
The tentative plan is for the House to convene the 2021 session at the only place in central Vermont that's deemed to be large enough to accommodate this many people in a safe way, and that turns out to be the Barre Auditorium, the scene of many high school basketball finals.
Now, if the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase across the state, it is possible that House leaders could decide that meeting in person in any way is not a safe idea. And if that decision is made, then everything will be done by a remote basis for the House.
The Senate presents a different situation at this time. The Senate plans to come to the Statehouse on that first day, Wednesday, Jan. 6, and special locations will be set up for swearing-in ceremonies. There is enough space at the Statehouse to accommodate the 30 senators in various conference rooms, they might even use the House chamber.
There's a very strong feeling among Senate leaders that their tradition of starting a session at the Statehouse should be maintained, if at all possible. And they feel, at this time, they can do it safely.
The second day of the new session has the most traditions, the most ceremonies. What is the plan for that particular day?
Usually on that second day in the morning, there's a joint assembly of the Legislature, of the House and the Senate, to certify the results of the statewide candidates in the November election.
That's not going to happen in quite the same way this year. The Senate will most likely be spread out in the House chamber. And the plan at this time is for the House to join the Senate on a remote basis.
And on the afternoon of the second day, the governor delivers his inaugural address. It's going to be different this year, too?
It's going to be very different, and I think that's when people are really going to feel this sense that COVID-19 is having an impact on the legislative session. The 30 senators will be at the Statehouse, spread out in the House chamber. The 150 House members will join the ceremony using remote technology.
But the House chamber is not going to be packed the way it usually is. That first inaugural address, I can't tell you how crowded the Statehouse is. I mean, you've got all the lawmakers, their families, friends, dignitaries, and this year it's going to be a ghost town.
What about after the first week is over, and things perhaps get a little back to normal? What happens then?
Well, I don't know about getting back to "normal." Maybe the "normal" would be the way they were back in August, in September when both the House and the Senate met on a remote basis.
That's what's going to happen after that first week. Both the House and the Senate will no longer be at the Statehouse. They'll be meeting remotely. Most likely this is going to continue through February.
I've got to believe that at least the first three months of this session are going to be done using remote technology, because the virus is still going to be an issue that has to be dealt with in the state.
There's going to be a change of leadership at the Statehouse, what's the impact of that?
I think it's going to have a big impact. They're going to be new at the Statehouse, and almost all of them are women in the House.
Burlington Democrat Jill Krowinski will be the new speaker, since Mitzi Johnson lost her seat on Election Day. The new House majority leader will be Newfane Rep. Emily Long. Over in the Senate, the new president pro tempore will be Sen. Becca Balint from Windham County. She replaces outgoing Sen. Tim Ashe, who retired to unsuccessfully run for lieutenant governor, and Windsor Sen. Alison Clarkson will be the new Senate majority leader.
Also in the Senate, Democrat Molly Gray will be the new lieutenant governor, taking the place of David Zuckerman.
Over on the Republican side in the Senate, Franklin Sen. Randy Brock will be the new Senate minority leader. And in the House, Poultney Rep. Pattie McCoy is the one holdover leader from 2020. She serves as the House minority leader.
I've got to believe that these new leadership teams are going to influence the dynamics at the Statehouse, and they're going to be starting their positions under very difficult and challenging conditions, because of the remote nature of the session.
We got this note from Ellen in Addison County. She submitted a question to Brave Little State, VPR's people-powered journalism project, and it's right up the Ask Bob alley: "Who are Vermont's electors — members of the Electoral College — and how are they chosen?"
On Dec. 14, there's going to be a special ceremony at the Statehouse, in the House chamber, where Vermont's three electors representing the Democratic Party will officially sign documents to cast their votes for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Now, remember, back in November, voters didn't actually vote for specific candidates. You think you did, but you didn't, right? You voted for the electors of that party.
These documents will attest that the Democratic ticket did win a majority of votes in the November election. And as a result, they will be awarded Vermont's three electoral votes. That represents the fact that we have two U.S. Senators and one member of the U.S. House. And Secretary of State Jim Condos will officiate at the meeting and also sign all the documents.
So how are these electors chosen?
In most states, the political conventions that are held in the states are where these electors are chosen. And that's exactly what happened in Vermont last summer. Vermont's three electors were chosen, and they are: newly-elected Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram, Washington County Party Chair Linda Gravell and former party chair Terje Anderson. These three party members will have their place in history.
Do they have any choice of which presidential candidate they would want to vote for, as electors?
The answer is, yes and no. It really depends on the state.
Now, in most states, including Vermont, the electors must vote for the ticket that received the most votes. But in some states, there is no restriction. But tradition usually prevails.
Over the past 50 years, there have been roughly a dozen electors who didn't follow tradition, but it didn't change the outcome of the vote in any way. Now, if no presidential candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, and that could happen if you have several candidates winning a number of states, or if there's a tie, which is also possible.
That happened back in 1800 when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were tied. If that happens, the election is then decided by the U.S. House, where each state gets one vote. And the U.S. Senate would elect a new vice president by majority vote. But that won't be happening this year.
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