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The Virginia General Assembly

400 Years in the Making

The Virginia General Assembly holds a special significance in the United States, as it was founded in 1619 and is the first legislative body in North America. In 2019, the 400th anniversary, both chambers of Virginia’s Assembly are up for election. Here, we look at salient elements of the past, the present, and the potential future of the Virginia General Assembly.

Virginia also holds a special place in our hearts at Sister District. We were founded in 2016, and Virginia’s general election in 2017 was the first test of our new grassroots movement. That year, the resistance shocked everyone by ushering in a historic blue wave of new women and people of color elected to the House of Delegates.

A slate of Virginia candidates
The 12 Virginia Candidates endorsed by Sister District in 2019
Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates William J. Howell presiding over the House on January 12, 2012

Makeup of the General Assembly

The legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia is similar to most state legislative bodies in the US. It is bicameral, and it creates the laws of the state (actually, Virginia is a “commonwealth,” which is a technical distinction but one that is very important to most Virginians). The General Assembly consists of a lower chamber, the House of Delegates; and an upper chamber, the Senate. They meet in the Virginia State Capitol building, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson. The Assembly is unique among US legislative bodies because it is the oldest by far. The precursor to today’s General Assembly, also called the Virginia General Assembly, first convened in a church’s choir in 1619, and frequently it is called “the oldest continuous law-making body in the New World.” 2019 is the 400th anniversary of the Assembly – fitting as the General Assembly stands poised to make history.

Special note: The Readjuster Party was a coalition of whites and blacks in the Reconstruction Era (1879 – 1883) who sought to reform Virginia. They were led by Harrison H. Riddleberger and Willam Mahone, a pair of former Confederate officers who sought to “readjust” prewar debt and to integrate blacks and whites in a more egalitarian Virginia.

The House of Delegates

Structure & Partisan Makeup

The House of Delegates consists of one hundred (100) seats.

Graphic of red and blue people showing House of Delegates is made up of 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats
The House of Delegates is made up of 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats

Legislative Districts

Each Delegate represents approximately eighty thousand (80,000) Virginians. Each Senator represents approximately two thousand (200,000) Virginians. While these districts are numerically balanced, the manner in which their boundaries have been drawn is highly suspect.

2017 Elections

In 2017, brand new grassroots groups (the “resistance”) and longstanding organizations energized by the election of Donald Trump poured volunteer hours, dollars, and other resources into Virginia general election. Sister District was one of them, and we are excited to return in 2019 to finish what we started. The 2017 “Blue Wave” reflected an intersection of 1) demographic change in much of Virginia, 2) general dissatisfaction with the Trump-influenced GOP, and 3) extensive national attention and effort focussed on Virginia’s elections.

Elections

Virginia holds elections for Delegates every two (odd) years. They elect their Senate every four years – in the year that is opposite the gubernatorial elections (e.g. the governor, lieutenant governor, and the attorney general were last elected in 2017; in 2019, only the House of Delegates and the Senate are up for election).

Meetings

The General Assembly meets annually, beginning on the second Wednesday in January, for 60 days in even-numbered years and for 30 days in odd-numbered years, with an option to extend annual sessions for a maximum of 30 days. Virginia’s legislative process is like any other bicameral legislature – with bills being ratified by both houses before being delivered to the governor’s desk.

Legislation

While “Medicare for all” has yet to become a reality in Virginia, the General Assembly passed a widening of access to medical care for Virginians. Also, numerous social and educational reforms have been signed into law since 2017. Not yet passed are items such as the Equal Rights Amendment, improved redistricting, and gun reform. Slight GOP majorities in both houses have prevented gun reform of any kind from reaching the governor’s desk.

The Senate

Structure & Partisan Makeup

The Senate consists of forty (40) seats.

The Virginia Senate is made up of 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats
The Virginia Senate is made up of 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats

The demographic in Virginia has been shifting rapidly. African-American, Asian, and, in particular, Latino populations in the state have increased dramatically in the 21st Century, with a corresponding increase in registered Democrats. The change has outpaced the gerrymanderied boundaries that the Republicans drew in 2010.

Elections

Elections take places every 4 years for 40 senatorial districts with no term limit. The last election took place in November 2015.

Meetings

The General Assembly meets annually, beginning on the second Wednesday in January, for 60 days in even-numbered years and for 30 days in odd-numbered years, with an option to extend annual sessions for a maximum of 30 days. Virginia’s legislative process is like any other bicameral legislature – with bills being ratified by both houses before being delivered to the governor’s desk.

Legislative Districts

Virginia has one hundred (100) House of Delegates districts of approximately eighty thousand people, and forty (40) Senate districts of two hundred thousand (200,000) people.

In the past decade, these districts have gained national infamy for being particularly irregular. Much has been written and said about the egregious boundaries of Virginia’s districts being some of the most gerrymandered (see “Gerrymandering” below) in the country.

Democrats have outvoted Republicans by over two hundred thousand (200,000) votes in the last two elections, and yet the state’s representation, at both the state and federal level, has not reflected this. The GOP still holds a one-seat advantage in both the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate, while it only in 2018 has the Congressional representation of the Commonwealth swung three seats into a 6-5 Democratic majority after a long period of gerrymandered underrepresentation (see “partisan makeup” above and “gerrymandering” below).

The Commonwealth’s district boundaries have been a hot topic of conversation in past years. Both Congressional and state legislative district lines in Virginia have been held unconstitutional by federal courts due to racial gerrymandering. New maps for the House of Delegates districts will be used in the 2019 general election, and more fairly represent Democratic voices.

Elections in Virginia

How do Virginians Vote?

Virginia has been trending Democratic ever since the turn of the 21st Century. In most statewide (including presidential) elections, Virginia has voted majority Democrat, and in terms of total voter turnout in state legislative elections, the Commonwealth has been Democratic. Republicans have protected their seats in the state legislature and in Congress through racial gerrymandering.

Northern Virginia

As an extension of one of the bluest cities in the US (Washington, DC), Northern Virginia has been an increasingly Democratic stronghold. As economic progress pumps capital into the region, the population has risen steadily as job-seekers have flowed into the counties south of the nation’s capital.

Virginia Beach

Another key region of the Virginia is the southeast – the “Hampton Roads” area. With a large Navy presence and with a solid mix of industries, Hampton Roads has attracted newcomers and an increasingly “blue” demographic. This is the area that contains the internationally infamous “blind draw” defeat of Shelly Simonds in 2017. Sister District candidates Simonds, Phil Hernandez, Cheryl Turpin, Alex Askew, and others look to turn the region from purple to blue.

Rural Virginia

The western half of the Commonwealth extends into Appalachia, and most of the more lightly populated areas of Virginia stay red. In fact, rural Virginia has trended increasingly Republican since the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

The Virginia House of Delegates District Map
The Virginia House of Delegates District Map
The Virginia Senate District Map
The Virginia Senate District Map

Issues in the Elections

Redistricting and Gerrymandering

Shortly after the 2010 census, the GOP sought to solidify power across the country, wherever possible. Coincidentally, the person who was pivotal to this concentration of power was a man from Virginia: Chris Jankowski. Jankowski came from the capital of Virginia, Richmond.

Working through ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council), using funding from numerous Koch seminars contributors, and launching his own organization, REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project), Jankowski orchestrated a series of Republican victories in state elections. Once installed in power, these state legislatures gerrymandered state and Congressional districts so extensively that the GOP would maintain majorities even if they did not obtain a majority of the votes.

Gerrymandering: Explained 3 Ways
Gerrymandering: Explained 3 Ways

Jankowski’s locum in Virginia, greatly enhancing Republican district enhancement, was the Republican governor at the time, Bob McDonnell. The governor consistently vetoed district boundaries drawn by the Democratic Senate, and steered all redistricting to greatly benefit GOP candidates. A compliant Republican-dominated House of Delegates pushed the questionable new districts through the General Assembly, and McDonnell signed them into existence.

It should also be noted that Virginia’s Republican gerrymandering is not limited to state legislative districts. As the governing body of Virginia, the General Assembly also draws the Congressional districts of the Commonwealth, and those have been flagrantly favorable to Republicans over the past decade-plus. It was only the influx of Democratic voters into formerly Republican districts that caused three Congressional seats to flip to the Democratic Party in 2018.

Environmental Sustainability

One of the background players in the politics of the Commonwealth of Virginia is their energy provider, a monopoly known as Dominion Energy. Dominion Energy has profited greatly, polluted extensively, and inserted itself directly into Virginia’s politics.

It should come as no surprise that regular lobbying and donations to (mostly) Republican candidates has buffered any opposition from the GOP side of the aisle in the General Assembly. Dominion Energy’s careful application of campaign contributions in the right places has lowered the barriers to its general misbehavior.

As is often the case with energy companies (which are monopolies), Dominion Energy has run up its prices and its fees while the Commonwealth’s utility commission does the company’s bidding. In an era when climate change is a chief concern for a majority of citizens, Dominion Energy has announced the rebuilding of eight coal-, gas-, and even wood-burning power plants along with a plan to build ten additional coal-fired plants. Dominion Energy has also supported pseudo-solar organizations are actually consortia designed to halt solar progress in Virginia.

Pipelines

Additionally, Dominion Energy has pushed hard for the approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a six hundred mile conduit of fracked natural gas. Presently, the pipeline is stalled in process, but the profit motive will keep Dominion Energy pushing for its completion.

Health of the Chesapeake Bay

A gigantic natural harbor, the Chesapeake Bay touches three states and provides a vast aquatic and riparian environment for countless species of life. Dominion Energy’s liquified natural gas plants pose a growing threat the Bay itself, and to the environment in general. One plant, the Cove Point facility in southern Maryland, released over one million metric tons of greenhouse emissions in 2018 alone. Completion of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would substantially increase, perhaps more than doubling, these emission totals.

Source Links

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Burgesses
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readjuster_Party
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_House_of_Delegates
https://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/Will-Gun-Control-Have-a-Moment-in-Virginia-GOP-Lawmakers-Pitches-Idea.html
http://censusviewer.com/state/VA
https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/VA
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_party_strength_in_U.S._states
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cook_Partisan_Voting_Index
https://ballotpedia.org/Virginia_elections,_2018
http://crystalball.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/virginias-redistricting-history-whats-past-is-prologue/
https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/ahertel/files/donorconsortia-named.pdf
https://www.nrdc.org/experts/walton-shepherd/dominions-troubling-costs-virginians-and-our-environment
https://newrepublic.com/article/155061/dominion-energy-companies-corrupt-state-politics-virginia
https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/investigations/bs-md-japan-lng-20180606-story.html
https://www.cbf.org/about-cbf/locations/virginia/issues/atlantic-coast-natural-gas-pipeline.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Virginia_political_crisis
https://virginiageneralassembly.gov/membersAndSession.php?secid=1&activesec=0#!hb=1&mainContentTabs=1
https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?191+lst+APP
https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?181+lst+APP
https://virginianavigator.org/article/12489/how-bill-becomes-law
https://ballotpedia.org/Virginia_House_of_Delegates_elections,_2019
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Virginia_House_of_Delegates_election