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From the Field

Why Are States So Important? Focus On: Virginia, November 5, 2019

Last we checked in on the nation’s twelfth-most populous state, it was December 2018, and Virginia state GOP legislators, having controlled both House and Senate for much of the past decade, were working tirelessly to maintain illegal, racially gerrymandered district lines in defiance of numerous court orders.

Well, (some) things have changed.

Long story short, after a number of suits and countersuits, a district court in 2018 deemed 11 state legislative districts illegally racially gerrymandered and ordered the VA legislature to toss the map and redraw the lines. The legislature refused, so the task of redrawing boundaries fell to an independent expert. Unhappy with the new map, Republicans in the VA House of Delegates appealed to the US Supreme Court (for the second time)… and on June 17, 2019, lost their case.

The good news carries a caveat: the Court rejected the House’s argument on procedural rather than substantive grounds, meaning this is not the resounding, crystal-clear victory voting-rights advocates had hoped for. Nonetheless, the remedial state legislative district map stands, at least until GOP officials find another way to delay or obstruct its implementation.

Unsurprisingly, Virginia’s Congressional district lines were also found to be illegally racially gerrymandered, and were redrawn by court order in 2016. The new Congressional map increases Democratic representation to more accurate and proportional levels.

And Not a Moment Too Soon!

On November 5, one month from today, Virginians will go to the polls to vote for their state Senators and Representatives. All of them. All 140 seats in Virginia’s State Senate and House of Delegates will be up for grabs, and at 51 Republicans-49 Democrats (House) and 21 Republicans-19 Democrats (Senate), the General Assembly is THISCLOSE to flipping blue. In a state that once was the capital of the Confederacy, these numbers are reason for cautious jubilation.

The utter degradation of our federal government over the past two years is in itself enough to make all upcoming state races particularly vital to our democracy. But electing honorable legislators is especially important right now, in Virginia, in 2019.

Why?

Exhibit A: the 2020 US Census

If you’re like me, you probably never gave the Census much thought. However, given the current administration’s efforts to politicize the process — remember, this administration politicized the weather — I’ve gained a new appreciation of just how critical the decennial Census is.

One, the Census helps determine community-by-community allocation of federal funds — currently $800b+ per year — on everything from schools to hospitals to public works.

Two, GOP operatives and Wilbur Ross notwithstanding, the Census ideally protects the American principle of “one person, one vote.” By law, states must “redistrict” after a Census — i.e. use the new data to redraw the lines for state legislative districts and Congressional districts, reflecting any congressional reapportionment and maintaining (putatively) equal populations within districts. In Virginia, as in most states (including MA and RI), state legislatures are in charge of redistricting; other states employ various types of political, advisory, or independent commissions.

The Virginia legislators elected next month, therefore, will be responsible for redistricting — for rewriting state legislative and Congressional district maps in the fairest way possible so that every vote carries equal weight. The more decent, good-faith legislators elected to office, the greater the opportunity to reverse the illegal racial gerrymandering that has so stained GOP legislative tenure in the state.

SCOTUS Disappoints

In fact, state legislators will effectively constitute the bulwark against illegal gerrymandering, with no help from the federal government. We know this because the US Supreme Court told us so. On June 27, 2019, in a landmark ruling on partisan gerrymandering, SCOTUS threw up its collective hands and essentially moaned, “we don’t like it, but what can we do about it?” (The case was unrelated to Virginia’s lawsuits.) Despite an emotional dissent from Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, the Court ruled that unfair maps must be addressed by voters and by state courts, not by federal law.

So it’s official: when it comes to combatting partisan gerrymandering, our state officials are on their own. Consider yourself warned.

Exhausted by the past decade of GOP shenanigans, some Virginians have begun to favor a constitutional amendment that would create an independent, non-partisan redistricting advisory commission. A provisional amendment already passed the General Assembly, but legislators elected next month will need to pass the resolution again, after which the measure can go onto the November 2020 ballot. Whether or not Virginia jettisons partisan gerrymandering will depend on whom voters elect to their state legislature. It’s that simple.

Exhibit B: the 2020 Presidential Election

As if the Census and redistricting weren’t momentous enough, 2020 marks the arrival of another political behemoth, the presidential election. As one of only four states holding general elections before the Big One, Virginia is garnering a lot of attention, and voters and candidates are already scrutinizing its election process like tea leaves for potential clues about the future. Per The New York Times:

With political leaders searching for signs of what to expect from voters across the country in 2020, Virginia’s legislative elections are viewed as an early test case, both as a measure of Democratic momentum against Republican control and for what they may reveal about voters’ attitudes on policy issues and campaign messages.

John Feinblatt, President of Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, agrees. “Virginia is a bellwether state and we are going to be there,” he says. “There is no doubt this is a test. This is the next theater for what’s going to happen everywhere in 2020.”

Given that Virginia GOP legislators recently walked out of a special session on gun control — convened after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach — and adjourned until after the November election rather than address the issue… well, I was going to say, let’s hope Feinblatt’s right. But we can do better than that. Let’s VOTE him right. So get to it, Virginia. We’ll be watching.

– Juliet Eastland

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