This Saturday, members of the so-called “Alt Right” will descend on Charlottesville to bring attention to their vision of white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and supposed cultural superiority. Though there has been inflammatory rhetoric on social media, few know exactly how many will actually appear or how they plan to behave. But one thing is clear—the nation will be watching us, and our responsibility to speak truth and love to their messages of hate and division is stronger than ever before. That means so many things. It means nonviolence if confronted with violence or efforts to incite violence. It means respect for police who are just trying to do their jobs and protect citizens exercising their rights. It means unity in the face of division. It means confronting, in a pastoral way, those whose views differ from ours and who would impose their values and worldview on us. And it means joining and supporting our friends and neighbors in a disciplined, respectful, nonviolent response. [Read more…]
State Legislating In The Shadow Of A Trump Presidency
In the weeks that followed the election of Donald J. Trump, a number of state legislators around the country wondered aloud whether the new president was perhaps so enigmatic and unpredictable that he actually would not do what he promised to do during the course of the fall campaign. And others hoped that he might actually follow through on his promise that “all citizens will have really good health care.” They were dramatically wrong on all counts. Trump has done exactly what he promised to do – with startling speed, audacious assertiveness, and with little apparent concern about the real impacts, not only of his tweets, but, more importantly, his policies. This presents significant peril for our constituents, but also unprecedented political opportunities for the upcoming elections. The first test electorally will be November 2017, and Virginia will be at the center of it all. All statewide offices are up for election, as well as 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. [Read more…]
We should have seen it coming. Yet few of us did. The pollsters, pundits, media moguls, and establishment of both parties are all asking themselves “how could this happen – and what happens next?”
We are hearing that this is a “change” election. I submit that it is something quite different; it was nothing short of a massive and unadulterated “reaction election.” It was a reaction to a country and world that sometimes appear to be spinning out of control. [Read more…]
Several weeks ago, in a piece entitled “Why States Matter,” I argued that while we are rightly focused on the Presidential election, we should not lose sight of what is happening in our states, where the concerted efforts of conservatives around the country over the last decade have skewed the political composition of our state legislatures – with dramatic results.
As we focus on Congressional, Senate and Presidential contests, we must remember that the actions of state legislatures greatly impact their outcome. What we have seen over the last decade from conservative-dominated legislatures are new laws designed to make it harder to vote and to reduce turnout, especially in minority communities. These laws are justified by so-called voter fraud, which numerous independent studies have shown either to be non-existent or so small that it has no impact. State legislatures, including Virginia’s, continue to impose new requirements for voter identification. Prior to 2006, not a single state required a person to present photo ID in order to vote; by 2015, 34 states had such laws. Virginia enacted its current law in 2014. Many were enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that struck down certain portions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. This coincidence has not gone unnoticed.
Courts Take Action
A number of courts have recently ruled that these state actions are unconstitutional. Statutes similar, though not identical, to those in Virginia were just struck down in Wisconsin and Texas. A federal district court in North Dakota has now blocked implementation of that state’s 2013 voter ID law. In Wisconsin, the federal court wrote, “The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement.” And last week, the U.S Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down North Carolina’s voter suppression law, among the most draconian in the country, the court stating that the law’s provisions targeted African-Americans with “almost surgical precision.” This same court will hear the case against Virginia’s photo ID law on September 22, 2016.
Some courts are acting to correct the most insidious voter suppression laws. But in states where these laws remain, they will likely depress turnout, especially among minority voters. A new study by researchers at the University of California at San Diego suggests that Democratic turnout drops an estimated 8.8 percentage points in general elections in states with strict ID laws and Republican turnout drops 3.6 percentage points. In Virginia, the Department of Elections says 179,000 “active voters” have no DMV-issued photo ID. These numbers are so high that they are almost hard to believe. Nonetheless, it is clear that conservative legislatures are attempting to suppress the vote in order to keep power.
Some citizens will be encouraged by court decisions, saying that “the Courts and the Constitution will have our backs” by overturning these suppression efforts. But lawsuits cost money and take time, and despite these recent decisions, courts generally defer to legislatures; the battlegrounds remain, therefore, in the legislatures.
Gubernatorial Overreach, or Voter Suppression?
In Virginia, the rallying cry has become “they are making it harder for people to vote – make sure you bring your ID to the polls.” But voting should be made easier, not harder. And when Virginia Democrats proposed to make it easier, for example, with measures that would allow early voting for persons over 65, same day registration, and no-excuse absentee voting, the answer from the Republican House of Delegates has been a resounding “No.” In Virginia, the only thing preventing more draconian voter suppression efforts from being enacted into law is a Governor’s veto, together with enough Democrats in the legislature who will sustain it.
One way to view the recent dispute surrounding Governor McAuliffe’s efforts to restore voting rights to felons who have paid their debt to society is through a lens of voter suppression. We have heard a lot about “second chances” and “redemption,” but when the Governor attempted to accelerate the process for reviewing individual applications for rights restoration by hiring more staff, the House Republicans just said “No,” and offered no alternative to help streamline the individual application process. In fact, they have voted against all legislation that would do so. Consequently, to speed up restoration of these rights, the Governor acted to restore rights to all felons who met specific criteria. The Virginia Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision in Howell v. McAuliffe, the swing vote coming from the recent Republican appointee in the aftermath of Justice Jane Roush’s firing, overturned the Governor’s Executive Order, despite the plain language of Article V, Section 12 of our Virginia Constitution that states “The Governor shall have power…to remove political disabilities consequent upon conviction….”
State House to Courthouse
In Virginia, not only does the state legislature make the laws about who can vote, when they can vote, and how they can vote, but it appoints the judges who interpret these laws. And slowly but surely, our judiciary is being populated with conservative judges; the decision in Howell v. McAuliffe shows clearly how these appointments matter. This is yet another reason why we need to work to change the House of Delegates. Who knows how Justice Roush would have approached the felon restoration of rights issue, or whether her presence would have changed the vote. We do know, however, that rules about voting and the interpretation of laws by judges appointed by state legislatures again show “Why States Matter.”
Virginia is One Election Away from Becoming North Carolina
Many Virginia citizens are actively engaged in the 2016 presidential race and Congressional races down-ticket from the Clinton/Trump contest. But as we focus intensely on the national races, we should not ignore the state gubernatorial and legislative races, including those which will occur in Virginia next year.
The conservative movement in this country recognized a long time ago what many of us who seek common-sense solutions to everyday problems in an atmosphere of civility and genuine political exchange have neglected at our peril, and that is that states matter!
The statistics clearly bear this out. According to the Pew Research Center, Republicans have been very successful in electing their candidates to state legislatures in the last decade. The GOP gained 721 state legislative seats in 2010 and has continued to build their margins in the succeeding years. In 2009, Republicans controlled both legislative chambers in 14 states; by 2015, they had 30. They now control 70 of 99 legislative chambers. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) is committed to spending in excess of $100 million to expand their margins.
Our Southern Neighbor
Where Republicans have taken over, the results have been dramatic. Witness our close neighbor, North Carolina. In 2008, the state chose Obama for president, but by 2011, both the House and the Senate in the state had flipped to Republican control. With Republicans in control of redistricting, they drew new lines that further solidified their election victories, and began their “conservative revolution.” In August 2012, North Carolina banned the state from basing coastal policies on scientific predictions of sea level rise. A Republican governor was elected in 2012 and the state took a dramatic turn to the right.
In February 2013, North Carolina cut maximum weekly unemployment benefits by 40 percent, from $530 per week to $350 per week, and shortened the period of time when workers could receive the benefits, at a time when North Carolina’s unemployment levels were approaching 10 percent.
Under the guise of “tax reform,” the state imposed a greater tax burden on the middle class. It repealed “teacher tenure” for any teacher hired after July 2013, invested more taxpayer dollars in “private school vouchers,” and repealed many of the measures previous legislatures had passed to increase voter participation throughout the state.
In 2015, North Carolina reduced a fine on Duke Energy from $25 million to $7 million in the aftermath of 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater being spilled into the Dan River from the company’s defunct coal plant. In 2015, the legislature abolished a wildly successful solar investment tax credit, which had generated substantial revenue for the state and created thousands of jobs. The legislature and Governor approved the termination of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, a program hailed by Ronald Reagan as the most effective anti-poverty program that we have in this country. Almost one million low-income North Carolinians were affected. The president of the University of North Carolina was ousted and replaced by a former Bush appointee, Margaret Spellings.
Then, in late March 2016, the conservative turn became national news when, in a Special Session that took less than 12 hours, the state passed a bill that not only prevented localities from enacting anti-LGBT discrimination measures, but made it more difficult for any person to enforce claims of discrimination in state courts. The publicity from its so-called “bathroom bill” has generated protests around the nation and has prompted many businesses to stop expansion plans in the state or consider relocating.
While our state elections are another 17 months away, the actions of our neighbor to the south show what can happen in the absence of the checks and balances of divided government. And we are not even talking about the next regular redistricting process, which will occur under the scrutiny, and potential veto, of the next governor. Clearly, a lot is at stake.
The “Virginia Way”
In Virginia, we celebrate the so-called “Virginia Way.” The Virginia Way implies a civil approach that embraces moderate changes focusing on core services of government and supporting a good business climate. For years, Virginia had “divided government;” Democrats and Republicans each controlled either the House, Senate, or Governorship. In addition, there was a group of moderate Republican Senators who would stop some of the most socially regressive legislation passed by the Virginia House of Delegates from ever getting to the Governor’s desk. Unfortunately, most of those moderates are now gone from the Virginia Senate and all that stands between Virginia and North Carolina is a Governor who is willing to exercise his or her veto pen in the service of moderation. If you look at the vetoes in Virginia’s last General Assembly session, you can see this in full force. The Governor successfully vetoed efforts by the Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood, prevent the state from producing a state-initiated clean power plan, allow discrimination under the guise of religious freedom, continue inefficient and special tax benefits for coal companies and utilities, and place further restrictions on Virginians’ ability to register and vote.
Our ability to influence state races is dramatically affected by voter turnout. Although it is unlikely that voter participation in the presidential race will reach the historic levels of the 2008 Obama campaign, the percentage of registered voters who will make it to the polls this fall is likely to exceed 70 percent. Contrast that to the last Virginia gubernatorial race when only 43 percent of registered voters appeared at the polls, and state delegate races which often produce participation numbers even lower (under 30 percent in 2015).
Virginia’s Elections Matter
So as we rightfully focus on the Presidential election, we should not lose track that in Virginia we could be only one election away from our state adopting the politics of North Carolina and producing a new redistricting plan that will put the checks and balances of divided government at further risk for the next decade. The stakes could not be higher.