Here’s how much the world has changed since 1982: Back then the Raiders were in Los Angeles, the Cardinals were in St. Louis and there were still teams called the Houston Oilers and Baltimore Colts.
Here’s another way: The day after Paul Trible won the U.S. Senate race in Virginia that year, he flew out to Wise County to shake hands with coal miners at shift change. Some were surprised that Trible seemed to still be in campaign mode after the votes were counted, but he explained that this was in line with a tradition he had practiced when he was a member of the House of Representatives. Then, it was his custom on the day after an election to shake hands at Newport News Shipbuilding to thank workers for voting for him. As senator-elect, he expanded that to Southwest Virginia – even though Trible didn’t carry Wise County or much of anywhere in far Southwest.
Now Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin has turned his post-election celebration into a whole statewide tour of “thank you” rallies. More than two weeks after the election, he’s still making the rounds. On Friday, Youngkin’s “thank you” tour brought him to Salem and Lynchburg. Today he’s in Scott County and Abingdon. The Washington Post last week reported on how unusual these rallies are and how slow Youngkin seems to be in releasing actual transition plans:
The rallies are a departure from the norm in this tradition-bound state. All three of Youngkin’s most recent predecessors had teams ready to go the day after being elected.
Youngkin, a former private equity executive, ran as a “political outsider” who had never held elected office. He waited until a week after the election to officially name his transition team and launch a transition website, and he has given few media interviews apart from appearances on Fox News and conservative podcasts. Some Republicans in Richmond have fretted about the slow pace of Youngkin’s rollout, with a few suggesting that it’s the result of tension within his groups of advisers.
Is Youngkin really falling behind in his preparations for taking office on Jan. 15? I have no clue. We won’t really know until we see Youngkin actually in office. Instead, I want to pose a different question: Why do we have such a long transition between when a new governor is elected and when that new governor takes office?
Yes, it’s nearly a week shorter than the transition period we allow for new presidents, who are inaugurated on Jan. 20. And yes, that’s considerably shorter than the March 4 inauguration date we had for presidents until the 20th Amendment in 1933 moved the date. (The thinking at the time was that the four-month transition was far too long during the depths of the Great Depression, especially when voters had just kicked out the incumbent, Herbert Hoover.)
Still, it seems worth asking: Why are transitions so long? Does this timeline from a horse-and-buggy era still make sense today? Other countries manage to install new leaders far more quickly than we do. Why do we have to drag things out? Put another way, why isn’t Youngkin already governor? The State Board of Elections certified the results on Nov. 15, nearly two weeks after the election. Why do we have to wait eight more – 10 weeks after the election – to swear in the new governor?
The answer that it takes a new president or a new governor time to pick a cabinet isn’t satisfactory. In a parliamentary system, a new prime minister has his or her cabinet lined up long before the election. Even in opposition, the opposition leader has a “shadow cabinet” ready to take over – and criticize the incumbents in the meantime. Now, there is one big difference: In a parliamentary system, those cabinet officers are members of parliament. In our system, it’s unusual for a president (or a governor) to tap a member of the legislature. (For our purposes today, I’ll confine myself to the state level because we Virginians have the power to change our transition system; don’t count on much of anything changing at the federal level.)
Still, there’s nothing stopping a gubernatorial candidate from announcing a cabinet ahead of time. You can argue that would even be a good thing – it would give voters more sense of what his or her proposed administration would look like. Some candidates might not like that – Youngkin ran one of the most detail-free campaigns ever and it obviously worked well for him. And there are practical difficulties: Nobody in the private sector wants to tell his or her boss, “Hey, I’m going to leave if my side gets elected.” But none of that answers the essential question: Do we really need 10 weeks between the election and the inauguration?
No, no we don’t.
I referenced parliamentary systems earlier, so let’s show how that works. On June 7, 2018, the Canadian province of Ontario held an election. The Conservative Party won over the incumbent Liberal Party (Canadians have more straightforward names for their parties), which meant that Conservative Party leader Doug Ford would be the new premier, the Canadian equivalent of a governor. He took office on June 29 – 22 days later. By that standard, Youngkin would be taking office on Thursday – Nov. 25.
The 22-day Ontario transition is actually on the long side. In 2018, it took Quebec just 17 days to inaugurate Francois Legault as premier following an election. In 2019, it took Prince Edward Island 17 days to inaugurate Dennis King as premier. And those aren’t the shortest transitions, either. On Aug. 17 of this year, Nova Scotia held an election. Once again, the Conservatives defeated the Liberals. On Aug. 31 – 14 days later – Tim Houston was installed as premier. Likewise, in 2019, it took Alberta just 14 days to make Jason Kenney the premier following an election. By the standards of Alberta and Nova Scotia, Youngkin would have been sworn in on Nov. 17.
Now maybe we should discount any election under a parliamentary system, although I suspect the premiers of every Canadian province would say (quite rightly) that their duties and responsibilities are no different from that of an American governor. Instead, let’s confine ourselves to the United States. Virtually all states inaugurate their governors sometime in January following a November election. But two don’t. In Alaska and Hawaii, new governors take office on the first Monday in December following an election. That means some have been sworn in as early as Dec. 1. The latest Hawaiian inauguration has been Dec. 6. The latest Alaskan inauguration has been Dec. 7.
Why can’t we do this?
The only reason I can think of – other than Virginia’s well-known aversion to change – deals with recounts. Since parliamentary systems don’t elect a premier provincewide, but rather depend on which party wins a majority in the legislature, there’s no such thing as a provincewide recount. You might have recounts in specific districts – the Canadians, so bland in their party names, are more colorful here, terming their districts as “ridings.” But those recounts would only make a difference to the overall outcome if the parties were evenly divided. If Virginia had a parliamentary system, we’d be in a kind of limbo right now. Republicans have won 52 seats in the 100-member House of Delegates, but two of those are close enough to be subject to recounts – so we wouldn’t know for sure until those races are recounted.
Our last statewide recount was in the 2013 attorney general’s race between Democrat Mark Herring and Republican Mark Obenshain. That lasted until Dec. 18 (and might have gone on longer but Obenshain conceded when the recount showed Herring’s narrow lead widening, not narrowing.) It’s theoretically possible for a recount to go on longer. In 2017, a recount in a House of Delegates race in Newport News ended in a tie on Dec. 20 of that year. Some fancy lawyering followed, and it took until Jan. 4 for the State Board of Elections to turn to the method of last resort: An election official picked a name at random out of a bowl.
The odds of a statewide race, with its much larger electorate, winding up tied is pretty unlikely, although it’s hard to pass laws based on “pretty unlikely.” Nonetheless, I return to the basic question. Alaska and Hawaii have figured out ways to get a new governor into office much more quickly than any other states. Why can’t we?
If anyone wants a fact-finding mission, I know which state I’d volunteer to investigate.