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Virginia certifies 2020 election results
Daily Press, APNovember 18, 2020 (Short)

The State Board of Elections in Virginia voted Wednesday to certify the state’s election results, two days later than expected because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Richmond’s voter registration office.

The board’s 3-0 vote certified results for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House elections and state constitutional amendments in a 10-minute meeting without comment, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. Virginia’s certification comes as former Vice President Joe Biden prepares to assume the presidency and President Donald Trump continues to sow doubt about the national election.

A campaign table at a polling station in Buckingham County, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

On Twitter, former GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock has deemed some conspiracy theories about a stolen election “tin foil hat stuff.”

Soon-to-be former GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman agrees. And he’s concerned other Republicans may be validating untruths by staying silent.

“If you see things that are false, or you see things that could be damaging based on hyperbole or conspiracy theories, you have a duty to speak out,” Riggleman said in an interview with the Mercury Wednesday. “It’s what you’re supposed to do as an elected official.”

After losing a GOP primary this year that limited him to a single term in Congress, Riggleman has openly condemned conspiratorial thinking on the right, most notably by taking on the fringe QAnon movement.

In the past week of commentary since former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden defeated Republican President Donald Trump, Riggleman’s seen a similar unwillingness to separate reality from fantasy, both from “grifters” seeking personal gain and from elected officials who know the election’s over but don’t want to say anything that might cost them politically.

“We’ve been through a lot of presidential transitions,” he said. “In two months, we’re going to have a new president. Period.”

U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-5th, campaigns in 2018 at Richmond International Airport with Vice President Mike Pence. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Republicans who still potentially have something to lose by angering Republican voters have been less eager to publicly dispute baseless claims that the presidential election was fraudulent.

Some have lent credence to the fraud claims. Others have tried to strike a middle ground by saying post-election challenges need time to play out.

On Tuesday, the Republican Party of Virginia emailed supporters asking them to give money to an “election integrity fund” because the election is “under attack by corrupt Democrats.”

“We cannot stand idly by and let them get away with this!” read the email from RPV Chairman Rich Anderson, which also asked for donations to support Republicans in next year’s gubernatorial race.

Claims of widespread voting fraud in the 2020 election have been repeatedly debunked by media outlets and election officials. That hasn’t stopped President Donald Trump from insisting he won the election, even though unofficial numbers show former Vice President Joe Biden won the popular vote and will win the Electoral College. So far, none of the Trump team’s legal challenges have gained serious traction in the courts.

More than a week after Election Day, few prominent Virginia Republicans have said they accept Biden’s victory.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, asked his Facebook supporters to contribute to President Donald Trump’s post-election fund, saying: “If there is the possibility of illegal activity both sides have a duty to request intervention from the courts.”

The rhetoric on the fundraising page he linked to went further, using the phrases “fraud,” “steal” and “left-wing mob.” The fine print at the bottom of that page notes that half the money raised would go to a “recount account” and half would be used for “general election debt retirement until such debt is retired.”

Congressman-elect Bob Good, who defeated Riggleman in a Republican primary earlier this year in central Virginia’s 5th District and bested Democrat Cameron Webb in the general election last week, also took to Facebook to declare his continued support for Trump.

“If we allow this to go unchallenged, neither Republicans nor others playing by the rules will ever again win a close presidential election,” Good said.

Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt, told his Facebook followers he had signed onto a letter asking Attorney General Bill Barr what he was doing about “widespread reports of irregularities.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Montross, issued a general statement on the importance of election integrity.

“In accordance with each state’s laws, every legally cast vote should be counted and every ineligible vote should not,” Wittman said.

Efforts to reach Good and the incumbent Republican congressmen were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, a Republican candidate for governor in 2021, has perhaps been most brazen in perpetuating the fraud claims. But her comments at a protest over the weekend claiming, without evidence, that fraud had occurred in Virginia drew little public pushback from other elected Republicans.

In a statement this week, the Democratic Party of Virginia said the state GOP has ”let conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists take over their party.”

“The rest of the country is working hard to move on from the national nightmare of the last four years, but Virginia Republicans seem intent on going down with the ship,” said DPVA spokesman Grant Fox.

There have been no documented examples of fraudulent ballots in Virginia. However, there have been a few claims that Republican observers were improperly prevented from watching election officials conduct business, most notably in Chesterfield County outside Richmond.

In a statement to the Mercury, Virginia Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said his agency will be conducting its usual post-election report to identify what can be improved going forward.

“Virginians voted in record numbers this year in the midst of a global pandemic and election officials across the Commonwealth should be praised for how smoothly the election was conducted,” Piper said.

Even though he lost his seat this year and is waging a battle against disinformation with mixed success, Riggleman said he’s convinced “the sky’s not falling.” Biden will be president, he said, but Republican gains in Congress will mean divided government. And hopefully, he said, a retreat from the fringes and a move toward moderate governance.

“The crazy elements are going to have to be suppressed with common sense,” Riggleman said.

Every criminal justice reform that passed in Virginia after George Floyd’s death
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverNovember 11, 2020 (Medium)
Police on Capitol Square at dawn stand alongside fencing set up to corral attendees of a large pro-gun rally in January. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia lawmakers finalized a sprawling package of criminal justice reform bills this week as they gaveled out of a special legislative session that stretched nearly 12 weeks.

Prompted by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the widespread outrage that followed, the hundreds of pages of legislation they adopted reflect years of pent-up demand for change among Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in more than two decades.

The bills they passed touch every aspect of the state’s criminal justice system, from traffic stops to prison sentences.

Here’s what they do and when they go into effect:

Empowering civilian review boards with subpoena and disciplinary authority

Effective date: July 1, 2021

Cities and counties in Virginia have occasionally created advisory panels to offer local police chiefs input and advice, but those boards have been limited to an advisory role only, making them essentially toothless.

The General Assembly voted to change that, allowing local governments to create panels that can field citizen complaints, investigate them and issue binding disciplinary rulings. The legislation drew pushback from law enforcement groups and divided activists, some of whom favored legislation that would require all local governments to establish the panels. The legislation also exempts sheriffs, who argued that because they are elected, they are already subject to civilian review.

Banning police from executing no-knock search warrants

Effective date: March 1

Called Breonna’s Law after Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed during a late-night raid in Louisville, the legislation makes Virginia just the third state in the country to bar police from executing warrants without first knocking and announcing themselves.

Law enforcement agencies were divided on the measure, with some arguing unannounced searches are important in limited circumstances to protect officers and evidence. Others said they didn’t use the tactic and considered it dangerous not to identify themselves as police.

Downgrading a handful of minor traffic violations to secondary offenses

Effective date: March 1

The bill is aimed curbing at what are often called pre-textual traffic stops — interactions motivated less by an officer’s concern about the offense at hand and more by a desire to investigate whether the people in the vehicle are committing other crimes. Supporters say they hope it will cut down on racial profiling. Opponents raised safety concerns, noting that as initially passed, it would have blocked officers from stopping a vehicle driving at night with no headlights.

The bill’s patrons called it an oversight and agreed to amendments proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam that allows stops only in cases where more than one headlight or brake light is out. Other violations the legislation downgrades to secondary offenses include: broken or loud exhaust system, tinted windows, objects dangling from a rearview mirror, smoking in a car with a minor present or a state inspection that is less than four months past its expiration date.

Prohibiting police from initiating searches based on the smell of marijuana

Effective date: March 1

This reform was rolled into the legislation limiting minor traffic stops. Smell-based searches for marijuana have been a subject of debate in Virginia since earlier this year, when lawmakers voted to downgrade possession of small amounts of marijuana to a civil infraction punishable by a $25 fine.

The searches, which are difficult to challenge after the fact due to ephemeral nature of odors, have faced growing scrutiny in legal circles and accusations that officers sometimes use it as an excuse to initiate a search where they wouldn’t otherwise have probable cause.

Reforming criminal sentencing to eliminate the ‘jury penalty’

Effective date: July 1, 2021

Virginia is one of just two states where if a case is heard by a jury, the jury must also hand down the sentence. The arrangement results in what trial lawyers call the “jury penalty” — in which people who exercise their constitutional right to a jury trial risk much steeper punishments if they are found guilty.

That’s because juries aren’t privy to sentencing guidelines, aren’t able to suspend time and, as a result, often hand down sentences far in excess of what a judge would recommend.

The legislation transfers sentencing authority to judges unless a defendant specifically requests it be set by the jury, which advocates predict will force prosecutors to offer more lenient plea bargains.

Creating Virginia’s first statewide code of conduct for police officers

Effective date: March 1, with new regulations due in December 2021.

In Virginia, law enforcement conduct is governed by rules and regulations adopted by individual departments around the state, and they can vary widely. The bill, which was backed by reform advocates and police groups, requires the state’s Criminal Justice Services Board to adopt statewide standards that, among other things, define serious misconduct.

And to stop what police chiefs said has been a common practice of officers resigning while under investigation and taking a job at another department, the new legislation requires local departments to notify the state of serious breaches, triggering a state-level decertification, which is currently limited to circumstances in which an officer has been found guilty of a crime.

Thousands of protesters march along Broad Street in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury

Mandating racial bias, de-escalation and crisis intervention training for police

Effective date: March 1

The legislation also creates a standardized curriculum for police academies around the state and requires police officers to undergo a psychological evaluation before they can be hired. A companion bill expands the membership of the committee that will create the new standards to include representatives from minority, social justice and mental health organizations.

Creating mental-health crisis response teams to co-respond with police

Effective date: July 1, 2021

Named the Marcus Alert after a 24-year-old shot and killed by Richmond police during a mental health crisis in 2018, the bill establishes response teams around the state specialized in behavioral health issues.

It will be up to state criminal and mental health boards to develop protocols, but the legislation states the teams should divert individuals in crisis to health care services whenever feasible and “facilitate a specialized response by law enforcement when diversion is not feasible.” The legislation requires the first five regional teams be in place by December 2021.

Limiting when police can use chokeholds and requiring officers to intervene in excessive force

Effective date: March 1

The legislation says police can only use neck restraints when they are “immediately necessary to protect the law-enforcement officer or another person.” Police officers who violate the law would be subject to administrative decertification. What impact the legislation will have in practice is a subject of ongoing debate. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, had pushed for a total ban and criminal penalties for violations. Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, argued the legislation means police who use chokeholds inappropriately could face prosecution under the state’s strangulation statute.

related bill requires officers to intervene if they see a colleague engaged in unlawful or excessive force and subjecting them to disciplinary sanctions if they don’t.

Since the pandemic began, hundreds of inmates at Deerfield Correctional Center had contracted COVID-19 and several died. The prison houses houses elderly and medically vulnerable inmates. (Virginia Department of Corrections)

Giving some inmates a chance to earn earlier release dates

Effective date: July 1, 2022

The legislation will let inmates cut their sentences by a third as long as they weren’t convicted of certain violent offenses, follow prison rules and participate in counseling and education programs. Prison officials estimate that it would move up the release dates of more than 14,000 inmates were it enacted today.

The measure was controversial, passing on a party-line vote and only winning support from a majority of Democrats after the patrons agreed to tack on a long list of exclusions. The delayed enactment clause — the longest attached to any measure that passed during the special session — is to give the prison system time to reconfigure their computer system.

related bill also expands Virginia’s compassionate release policies, which had been among the most restrictive in the country. The new approach allows the parole board to consider releasing terminally ill inmates who doctors expect to die within 12 months. Like the earned sentence credit bill, the measure excludes most inmates convicted of violent offenses.

Imposing modest limits on military equipment available to law enforcement

Effective date: March 1

The language, included in an omnibus reform bill passed by the Senate, blocks departments from acquiring certain military equipment, including weaponized drones, combat aircraft, grenades and grenade launchers, mine-resistant armored vehicles, bayonets, tanks and .50 caliber or higher weaponry.

With the exception of the mine-resistant vehicles (MRAPS), which some departments say they use for standoff situations and rescues, law enforcement groups said they don’t expect the new rules to impact the way they do business. And if departments do decide they want the equipment in question, they can ask the state for a waiver.

Affirming that local prosecutors have the authority to dismiss whatever cases they want

Effective date: March 1

The bill is the General Assembly’s response to disputes that have emerged in recent years between reform-minded commonwealth’s attorneys and local judges, some of whom refused to go along with prosecutors’ policies of dismissing low-level marijuana crimes. Supporters say they consider it less a change to current law than a correction to the way some in the judiciary were interpreting it.

Making it a hate crime to make false 911 calls motivated by race or other bias

Effective date: March 1

Called the “CAREN Act” when a similar measure was adopted in San Francisco, it creates a harsher, felony penalty for people who lodge false complaints with the police that are motivated by bias stemming from race, religious conviction, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, color or national origin.

Authorizing the attorney general to investigate local police departments

Effective date: March 1

The legislation’s patron, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said the bill was inspired by the U.S. Department of Justice’s refusal to initiate a “pattern or practice” investigation into charges of discrimination in the Portsmouth Police Department, where the state’s first black female police chief said she was forced to resign because “some quite frankly did not like taking direction from an African American female.”

Authorizing the state to inspect ICE detention facilities in Virginia

Effective date: March 1

Inspired by a deadly and poorly contained coronavirus outbreak at an ICE-contracted facility in Farmville, the legislation subjects the detention centers to the same standards and health requirements as other local jails. It will also allow the state to investigate detainee deaths.

Banning police officers from having sex with detainees

Effective date: March 1

The new legislation, which won unanimous support, makes Virginia one of at least a dozen states to pass or tighten laws governing sexual relations between police and arrestees after an 18-year-old woman in New York City alleged she was raped by two on duty police officers, who insisted she consented despite being handcuffed in the back of a police van.

Virginia General Assembly passes rules for newly approved redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw –November 9, 2020 (Short)
Voters cast ballots at Charles M. Johnson Elementary School in Henrico County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

With Virginia’s redistricting debate now settled by voters, state lawmakers approved a package of rules Monday for how the new, bipartisan map-drawing commission will work next year.

Democrats’ dispute over the redistricting commission, which almost 66 percent of Virginia voters approved last week, delayed the formal conclusion of the special session that began in August. To settle it, legislative leaders and Gov. Ralph Northam agreed to pass a post-election budget amendment allowing the commission to be set up and begin its work next year.

Democrats in the House of Delegates had opposed putting the language in the budget as the session seemed to be coming to a close last month. They argued voters should decide on the constitutional amendment creating the commission as it stood, without any improvements added legislatively.

On Monday, a few House Democrats gave speeches saying they still feel the commission idea is flawed, but will respect the result.

“The people have spoken in great numbers and they wanted to see changes in how the redistricting process happens in Virginia,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, an outspoken critic of the commission proposal who called it “regrettable that there was so much confusion and misinformation” about the redistricting question on the ballot.

The House voted 99-0 to approve the redistricting language. It also easily cleared the Senate.

Proponents of the change have hailed the commission as a much-needed change to a system that has given elected legislators free rein to draw districts to benefit themselves or their party behind closed doors.

“From the start, this movement has been about putting the voices of citizens above politicians and political parties,” the redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021 said in a statement celebrating the commission’s passage.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment creating a 16-person commission with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and seats split between sitting legislators and citizen members. Once new U.S. Census data is received in 2021, the commission will redraw Virginia’s congressional and legislative districts, a process that could determine partisan control in Richmond.

The commission’s members will be appointed in the coming weeks, and the panel has to hold its first meeting before Feb. 1.

The budget language approved Monday lays out who is eligible to serve on the commission and the process it will follow.

Among other things, the language:

  • Bans people who hold partisan offices, political aides, campaign employees, lobbyists and others from being appointed to the citizen seats to the commission. It also bans political insiders’ relatives from serving on the commission.
  • Stipulates that the commission’s makeup should reflect Virginia’s “racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity.”
  • Declares that the commission’s records, including internal communications, are public and subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Bans commission members from discussing redistricting-related matters with any third parties “outside of a public meeting or hearing.”
  • Requires the Supreme Court of Virginia to appoint two experts, or special masters, to draw court-overseen maps if the commission and the General Assembly fail to agree on their own. The special masters would be picked from lists submitted by political leaders from both parties.
  • Requires any Supreme Court judge related to a member of Congress or the General Assembly to recuse themselves from any redistricting decision. Current Justice Teresa M. Chafin is the sister of state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon.
Voters cast ballots at Main Street Station in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

That sense of whiplash you may have felt as you watched election returns in Virginia after its largest turnout election ever —more than 4.1 million votes — is not your imagination.

Some Republicans were excited for most of Tuesday evening as ballots cast on Election Day at Virginia’s nearly 2,500 polling places were tabulated and posted. President Donald Trump appeared to be beating Democrat Joe Biden in the reliably blue commonwealth, and it appeared that Republican novice Daniel Gade might unseat U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a former governor and the dean of Virginia’s Democratic elected officeholders.

Then along came the 2.7 million in-person and mailed absentee ballots that Virginians had been casting for weeks. That’s when reality crashed down on the state’s GOP – some harder than others.

After The Associated Press called the race for Warner the instant polls closed – and before any actual votes were counted – Gade taunted Warner and the AP, citing State Department of Elections returns that showed him ahead by 250,000 votes with 42 percent of precincts reporting.

“I got something for you, AP. You better walk it back,” he told an Election Night coterie of supporters. “Just like all of us conceded nothing during this entire race, I concede nothing. I’m coming for you, Mark Warner!”

AP’s call proved correct after the early and absentee votes were posted. Warner cruised to an 11 percentage-point victory and a third term in the Senate, and a chastened Gade tweeted a more graceful concession Wednesday morning.

Aside from his rookie mistake of sounding off with so little of the total vote counted, Gade’s frustration is relatable. Getting unofficial returns in conflicting, consecutive dumps is foreign to our experience of a sure and quick tally of the Election Day vote followed by a smattering of absentees that were rarely significant. This year, those early and absentee ballots were the tail that wagged the dog. The bifurcated process confused and vexed those who aren’t news nerds or politics junkies. Even some network pundits and cable news talking heads were flummoxed, voicing alarm nationally that Trump was blowing Biden’s doors off in a state where no Republican has won a statewide election in 11 years.

Chris Piper, Virginia’s election commissioner, says there’s got to be a better way.

“Election Day votes were tallied first. So those votes that came in before Election Day were a big dump later on in the evening, and it significantly changed things,” Piper said. “The question is how can we get those early votes in more quickly.”

For a few hours, it created a misleading impression because of the disparate ways and times Democrats and Republicans cast their ballots.

“I think one party’s voters chose to vote mostly early, and another party’s voters chose to vote mostly in person on Election Day, and it’s hard to balance the reporting of both of those at the same time,” Piper said.

The dismay created by AP’s and other news organizations’ early race calls for Democrats who appeared hopelessly behind in the Department of Elections’ online count found its way to Piper’s office Tuesday night, even though neither he nor his department has any role in proclaiming winners. That rests solely with the media.

“We got a lot of questions during the evening: ‘How can you call it for Warner when he’s down by 500,000 votes,’” Piper said. “It’s hard answering that question.”

An election official collects a ballot from a drive-up voter at the Fluvanna Community Center in Fluvanna County, Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

While the counting and reporting process created consternation, Virginia executed its election very well compared to many other states. Some of the credit goes to the state’s seasoned election administrators and the time they had to work the bugs out. Much of it goes to a raft of new election reforms that took effect this year, many of them enacted last winter by a General Assembly in its first year of Democratic control.

New laws rolled back decades of Republican restrictions and liberalized absentee and early in-person voting. They eliminated the requirement to cite a reason for voting absentee rather than on Election Day and the requirement that voters present government-issued photo identification at polling places. To encourage home-sheltered voting in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers provided funding to have stamped, self-addressed envelopes for voters to use in returning their completed ballots. And, starting this year, Virginians had the option of casting ballots in-person up to 45 days before the election at local registrars’ offices and designated local satellite voting facilities.

In some large localities, lines stretching the length of several football fields were not uncommon as the election drew nigh, but most reports showed queues moving briskly. Piper says that was because registrars had time to adapt their processes and improve efficiency.

Perhaps the most important advantage, in hindsight, has been around for a while: the leeway Virginia law gives its registrars to process and count absentee ballots before the election.

By Wednesday morning, Virginia’s preliminary tally was over and the state avoided the pressure-cooker spectacle that consumed election officials in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and neighboring North Carolina. Those battlegrounds had denied their local election officials the ability to get a jump on absentee counting. So, with a razor-thin margin and the presidency hanging in the balance as the whole world watched, those states began the laborious, meticulous, round-the-clock ordeal of counting absentee ballots on Tuesday. They were still at it Friday, with some eyeing another week of work.

Forty-eight hours after polls closed in Nevada, its six electoral votes remained in long-term limbo as Biden nursed a slim lead over Trump in a deliberately unhurried process in which the state’s administrators shrugged off appeals for urgency. Mail-in ballots postmarked on or before Nov. 3 can be received through tomorrow, and it could be the end of this week before complete totals are available, a Nevada election official said Thursday.

That’s not to say that Virginia’s election process is free of warts. The registrar’s sloppy handling of some absentee ballots in Henrico County raised legitimate questions about Democratic U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s paper-thin lead over her GOP challenger, Del. Nick Freitas, based on complete but unofficial returns in the 7th Congressional District race.

“We’re all going to sit down and look at the election and how it went,” Piper said. “There were a lot of different things we did this year that we hadn’t done in the past. Overall, I am going to credit the registrars for the hard work that they did to implement these things. But, certainly, there are ways we can get better at it and we’ll continue to work on that.”

And be glad, perhaps, that we’re not Nevada.

The Associated Press on Sunday projected that U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger will be reelected to her seat in Virginia’s 7th District after a dayslong count of votes that was prolonged by mail-in votes in the midst of the pandemic.

Spanberger, a Democrat, is nearly 8,000 votes ahead of Republican Del. Nick Freitas in the strip-shaped district in central Virginia that includes Culpeper, Chesterfield, Henrico and Nottoway counties and skirts to the west of Richmond.

Spanberger’s apparent result means that the only non-incumbent to win a seat in Congress from Virginia was a member of the incumbent’s own party. The partisan breakdown remains seven Democrats to four Republicans.

Biden, Warner wins show Democrats still dominate in Virginia
Washington Post, Gregory S. Schneider and Laura VozzellaNovember 4, 2020 (Medium)

The apparently comfortable margins of victory for both former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in Virginia on Tuesday extended an 11-year record of dominance for Democrats in statewide races and cemented the commonwealth’s status as reliably blue.

But at the local and regional level, a different dynamic holds — as evidenced by Republican strength in three close congressional contests driven by rural and military voters energized by support for President Trump.

The results suggest how much the state mirrors the nation as a whole, becoming more polarized and less attuned to the old “Virginia way” of consensus politics, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“This was an intensified partisan vote,” Rozell said.

AP: Mark Warner wins third term as US Senator
13News Now Staff, Associated PressNovember 3, 2020 (Short)

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia has won a third term to office.
Warner defeated Republican challenger Daniel Gade on Tuesday in a low-key race whose outcome was never in doubt.

Democrats have not lost a statewide election in Virginia since 2009. Warner is a former governor and current vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He had a massive cash advantage and scared off well-known Republicans from running against him.

Voters arrive at the Taylor Masonic Lodge in Scottsville, Va., Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

For years, redistricting reform advocates have been arguing something should be done to curb Virginia’s long history of political gerrymandering.

On Tuesday, voters overwhelmingly agreed, passing a constitutional amendment that largely strips the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts, a historic shift in a system that dates back to Virginia’s colonial beginnings.

Wielding that power instead will be a 16-member, bipartisan redistricting commission made up of both sitting lawmakers and citizens, a panel designed to conduct its business publicly as opposed to the secretive, insider-driven processes of the past.

In a year of intense partisan division, the idea of depoliticizing the redistricting process seemed to draw broad support across parties and regions. With almost 90 percent of expected votes counted early Wednesday morning, about 67 percent of Virginians had voted in favor of the amendment.

Though some votes were still uncounted, FairMapsVA, the anti-gerrymandering group pushing for the amendment with its parent organization OneVirginia2021, declared victory around 12:40 a.m., saying the result came after six years of work.

“Tonight, we celebrate the formation of Virginia’s first citizen-led redistricting commission; and tomorrow, we get back to work to ensure the commission’s work is successful,” the group said in a statement.

The outcome ensures that the next redistricting process — which could determine how much representation Virginia communities have, which political party is likely to hold power in Richmond and which incumbents are or aren’t safe from election challenges — will have at least some direct citizen involvement for the first time ever.

Once a decade, the state uses new U.S. Census data to redraw legislative and congressional maps to ensure each district has roughly the same population. How those districts are drawn can have far-reaching impacts, affecting which party can win a majority of the seats, electoral competitiveness, how much political power minority communities have and which individual politicians get to represent a particular area. So it’s no surprise that changing who draws those maps was a contentious endeavor.

The vote on the redistricting question, coupled with strong Democratic victories in Tuesday’s statewide races, reveals a disconnect between some Democratic leaders and the party’s voters.

Many Democrats in the House of Delegates voted against the commission proposal this year after voting for it in 2019, a reversal they said came after they had more time to consider its flaws. The Democratic Party of Virginia also officially opposed the initiative despite the fact that it was supported by senior Virginia Democrats like U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Had the amendment failed, the Democratic-led General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam would have the final say on new maps.

Fair Districts VA, an advocacy group formed by Democrats opposed to the ballot question, conceded defeat early Wednesday morning, saying it had been “fighting an uphill battle.” The group demanded that more be done to pursue stronger redistricting reform going forward.

“The people who pushed Amendment 1 know of its flaws – and it is now incumbent upon them to seek real solutions to fix those flaws,” Fair Districts said in a news release.

The proposal was supported by national good-government groups as well as the ACLU of Virginia, the League of Women Voters of Virginia and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. But it fell short of what many redistricting reformers envisioned: a fully independent commission that gives incumbent politicians no power whatsoever to draw their own districts.

Because Virginia has no process for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, it’s always been up to state lawmakers to willingly give up their redistricting power. In previous years, the Republican-led House of Delegates routinely blocked redistricting reform efforts. But GOP leaders changed their position in 2019 after federal courts redrew some House districts to correct Republican-led racial gerrymandering, a development that helped put the House GOP majority in jeopardy heading into the 2019 elections.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, argued unsuccessfully in March for an alternative redistricting amendment that was supported by a majority of Democrats in the House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Reserving half the seats for legislators was seen as a compromise that still gives General Assembly leaders a hand in redistricting, which can have career-ending consequences for incumbents whose districts change dramatically.

Maps produced by the new commission will go to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote. If the commission can’t agree on maps or the General Assembly rejects the commission’s maps, the Supreme Court of Virginia would conduct a court-supervised redistricting process.

Opponents have also argued the commission proposal lacks explicit protections for minority communities. Supporters say the amendment achieves that by referencing the federal Voting Rights Act and specifying that districts will allow “opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”

The insidery arguments about the commission’s particulars seemed to escape many Virginians.

Some voters said they hadn’t heard about the redistricting amendment until they saw it on their ballot Tuesday, drawing disparate conclusions about its potential impact from the one-paragraph description they read in the voting booth.

At a polling place in downtown Richmond, none sounded especially confident in their interpretations.

“It’s so convoluted if you read it from the back of a voter ballot,” said Patrick Ogden, who ultimately decided to vote no because he opposed the idea of stripping the governor of his authority to veto redistricting plans and giving the unelected members of the Supreme Court of Virginia a role in the process. “I believe the governor should have a little more say. At least that’s what I read from it.”

Sasha Atkins, who also voted no, said the explanation on the ballot made her worry the amendment wouldn’t give regular citizens enough of a say in the redistricting process. “We should be representing ourselves,” she said.

Another voter at the same polling place said she voted for the measure, but only because she thought it addressed how local school districts redraw their boundaries.

In Southwest Virginia’s Franklin County, Gary Holden of Ferrum said he supported the commission while voting “straight-ticket Democrat.” He said he saw the commission as preferable to the current system “so long as it’s made up of equal parties.”

In Virginia Beach, 44-year-old schoolteacher Scott Parker said he voted for the redistricting amendment because he wanted to bring more logic to the process.

At the same polling place, Janise Jenkins, a 39-year-old property manager, also said the amendment would be an improvement on the status quo.

“It will be fair, more reasonable,” she said.

The commission was approved just in time to handle the redistricting process scheduled for 2021, but pandemic-related delays with the census data could create severe timing issues. With all 100 seats in the House of Delegates up for election next year, officials will have to rush to get new districts in place in time for late-summer primaries and a shortened general-election cycle.

If the delays make it impossible to draw new districts in time, the House elections could potentially be run using existing district lines. The state could also be left scrambling if there appear to be major problems with the census count conducted in such a chaotic year.

In the short term, officials will get to work setting up the commission and deciding who will serve on it. By Nov. 15, the state Supreme Court is supposed to submit a list of retired judges willing to serve on a selection committee that will pick the citizen members from nominees floated by General Assembly leaders. The commission’s eight legislative members are scheduled to be appointed by Dec. 1.

The commission has to hold its first public meeting by Feb. 1.

First, the General Assembly will reconvene to pass additional rules for how the commission will work. Those rules were being considered for inclusion in the state budget during the recent special session, but the fierce intraparty debate among Democrats over the amendment led lawmakers to keep the budget process open until after the outcome was known.

With the amendment approved by voters, the legislature is set to return next week to finish that work.

After Biden and Warner win Virginia, slow counting delays results in downballot contests
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw November 4, 2020 (Medium)
An election official wipes down a table after every voter in Buckingham County, Nov. 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner were quickly declared victors Tuesday in Virginia, but the task of counting an extraordinary amount of absentee ballots left several other contests unresolved early Wednesday morning.

Minutes after the polls closed at 7 p.m., the Associated Press said Warner had defeated Republican challenger Daniel Gade. The AP later called the presidential contest for Biden, giving him Virginia’s 13 Electoral College votes if unofficial results hold.

But several competitive congressional races were uncalled as Tuesday turned to Wednesday, with results watchers waiting for local election officials to report their early voting numbers.

The 2.7 million votes cast by mail or in person prior to Election Day muddled the results that appeared Tuesday evening, showing Republican candidates with strong leads in a state predicted to stay solidly Democratic.

Biden pulled ahead of Trump in Virginia shortly after midnight, as more votes from heavily Democratic areas, including populous Fairfax County, started to come in.

Similarly confusing situations played out in some of the congressional races considered most competitive, with the AP unable to call the contests.

Republican House candidate Nick Freitas, a GOP state delegate from Culpeper, greets voters outside a Henrico County polling place on Election Day. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In two of those races, first-term Democratic Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico and Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk, were trying to hold off challenges from Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, and former Congressman Scott Taylor, respectively.

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico, greets voters at a polling place in Henrico County on Election Day. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In the third, Democrat Cameron Webb conceded defeat to GOP candidate Bob Good, who beat incumbent Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson, in a primary this summer.

It wasn’t clear when the outcomes of the other races might be known, but officials will still be counting some late-arriving ballots that come in before noon Friday. Final numbers likely won’t be available until then.

Former Campbell County Supervisor Bob Good, a Republican, defeated Democrat Cameron Webb for Virginia’s 5th congressional district seat Tuesday. (Good campaign)

First-term Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Leesburg, also defeated Republican challenger Aliscia Andrews, according to the AP, and other congressional incumbents appeared headed to re-election with no surprises.

In a hotly contested ballot referendum, voters appeared to signal broad approval for a constructional amendment to largely strip the General Assembly of its authority to redraw legislative and congressional districts. The amendment would create a 16-member, bipartisan commission that would redraw the state’s political maps starting with the 2021 redistricting process. Early results showed about 66 percent of voters supporting the amendment, with about 3/4 of the expected vote counted.

Voters in four cities also approved local referendums allowing casinos to be built in Bristol, Portsmouth, Danville and Norfolk, giving final approval to a casino legalization push years in the making.

Officials said Election Day went smoothly, with few reported problems.

As voters across the state cast their ballots, several said they were feeling uncertain about what might follow a uniquely important election.

Vonda Wharam, a 54-year-old teacher from Buckingham County, declined to say how she voted but said she’s never felt so uneasy about a presidential contest.

“If Trump wins it’s gonna be a riot. If Biden wins they’re gonna fuss about if the election was valid and true,” Wharam said. “That worries me.”

Jason Conway, a 24-year-old Buckingham voter studying for a job working on power lines, agreed, said he voted for Biden and Webb but was motivated mainly by wanting to get rid of Trump.

“I see the Republican party pushing this line of love your country and God and whatever whatever,” Conway said outside the polling place set up at the Buckingham County Volunteer Rescue Squad building. “I think it’s more of an emotion-based reaction versus trying to actually get equality for everyone.”

In Southwest Virginia, Franklin County resident Steve Thompson said he voted “straight Republican.”

“The Democrats are scaring me,” Thompson said. “I think they’re just too radical. They’re going to end up trying to take too many of our rights away from us, or attempt to.”

Marlene St. Clair of Ferrum said she voted for Good in the 5th District race, largely because of his alignment with Trump. “I think he’ll follow through with the things that Trump wants to do,” she said. “He won’t stand in the way of it.”

In Virginia Beach, voters were deciding a rematch between Taylor and Luria, who ran against each other before in 2018.

Former Republican Congressman Scott Taylor campaigns Tuesday outside a polling place in Virginia Beach in an attempt to take back his old seat from Democratic U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Norfolk. “Win or lose, I’m going to a beach somewhere” for a little while, he said. (Roger Chesley/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Janise Jenkins, a 39-year-old property manager, said she felt Luria was the better pick for military families.

“I didn’t like the controversy over Scott,” she said, referring to the investigation into the 2018 Taylor campaign’s efforts to get a third-party candidate on the ballot. Two former Taylor campaign staffers pleaded guilty to election fraud charges after evidence emerged showing some of the petition signatures were forged. Taylor has insisted he wasn’t involved.

Shawn Williams, a 31-year-old truck driver, said he voted for Taylor after supporting Luria in 2018.

“The Democrats are pushing me away,” he said.

Taylor himself was working the crowd at Aragona Precinct, one of Virginia Beach’s largest polling places. Asked what he’d do if he lost, Taylor said: “Win or lose, I’m going to a beach somewhere.”

Vicki Farrell, 65, had a sign in the back of her car at the Aragon Precinct in Virginia Beach urging calm following the election. “I’m worried about the report I’m hearing on protests. Antifa doesn’t care.” She said she’ll live and deal with whoever wins the presidential contest. (Roger Chesley/ For the Virginia Mercury)

At the same polling place, Vicki Farrell, 65, felt so strongly about the prospect of post-election unrest she put a sign in her car window with a plea to any voter who saw it.

It said: “Whoever wins stay calm. ‘We are not enemies but friends.’ – Abraham Lincoln”

Election results for Virginia’s House of Representatives candidates
13NEWS Now, Jonathan FranklinNovember 4, 2020 (Short)

All of Virginia’s U.S. House seats were up for re-election, as well as one critical U.S. Senate seat. Virginia also voted on whether or not to create a commission to re-draw lines of congressional districts.

In District 8, Donald Beyer, Jr., the Democratic incumbent, is the projected winner according to the Associated Press. Beyer has held this office since 2015.

At the headquarters of the Fauquier County Republican Committee in Warrenton, Virginia, a cardboard cutout of John Wayne gripping a rifle leans against a wall. Chair Gregory Schumacher says Wayne was “the great American Western hero,” and he says Republicans who held the Fifth District in Congress for all but two of the last 20 years will keep it in their hands this November.

Although the populous counties of Northern Virginia have powered the state’s drift into Democratic control, Schumacher says he sits on the political boundary. “When you come out from the Beltway, Fauquier County’s the first one that goes red,” Schumacher said.

But there are signs that this year could be different as Republican contender Bob Good faces Democratic challenger Cameron Webb in what political prediction site FiveThirtyEight calls the most competitive House race in the country. Webb has outraised Good fourfold and held a slight lead in the last three polls. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia and The Cook Political Report call the congressional race a toss-up. If Democrats can win this seat, they will continue a blue wave that flipped three House seats in 2018.

Democrats deeply divided on redistricting reform
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis (commentary)October 26, 2020 (Short)

Fatally flawed or a ‘step in the right direction’?

“The Gerrymander: a New Species of Monster” Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812. (Library of Congress Newspaper, Serials and Government Publications Division)

By Bob Lewis

A lot of people worked decades for this: taking decennial reapportionment of Virginia’s legislative districts from the self-serving hands of partisan lawmakers, at least in part, and giving the job to a new commission.

Finally, they believed, voters could soon pick their representatives instead of the other way around. And they were close, they believed. So close.

Led mostly by Democrats who had been in the legislative minority since the end of the 20th century, redistricting reform advocates believed their moment was at hand in the 2019 General Assembly. A commission had found traction at a transitional legislative moment with a clearly ascendant Democratic Party on the cusp of seizing control and Republicans, fearing that very prospect, welcoming a new commission that would spare them from the gerrymandering in the 2021 redistricting that they had inflicted upon Democrats in 2001 and 2011.

But the good-government group that had pushed the state constitutional amendment was about to learn a hard lesson in transactional politics. When push comes to shove and their power is threatened, politicians will work across party lines to preserve their prerogatives. That’s why Proposed Constitutional Amendment 1 now on every Virginia ballot feels like it falls short of the mark for some.

First, however, some background.

The state Constitution gives sole authority to apportion Virginia’s 100 House of Delegates districts, its 40 state Senate districts and its 11 U.S. House districts to the General Assembly and, by extension, the party in charge. The work of reapportionment begins again in earnest in less than three months.

The U.S. Constitution compels every state to perform this exercise in demography and geography each year immediately following the Census to ensure that each U.S. House member represents roughly the same number of constituents in Congress. Virginia’s Constitution requires compact and contiguous districts of the same population, meaning that, to the greatest degree practical, boundaries should not split communities of interest such as neighborhoods or voting precincts. For generations, dominant parties have trashed those precepts with impunity to maximize the number of districts favorable to their candidates and minimize those favoring their rivals.

It’s called gerrymandering, a practice nearly as old as the republic. Advances in digital information and computer analysis allow legislators to marry election data with fresh, granular Census data to engineer bespoke and often meandering districts, cherry-picking constituencies with microscopic precision to achieve partisan performance objectives.

Partisan gerrymandering, though vexing to the party out of power, is legal, the U.S. Supreme Court has held. It turns illegal when gerrymandering is racial in nature, concentrating Black voters into the fewest possible districts and minimizing their opportunities to elect candidates of their choice. Sometimes, racial gerrymandering — intentional or not — is inherent in achieving a partisan goal.

In the 2001 redistricting, a Republican-led legislature sketched a serpentine congressional district that took in as many Democrat-friendly precincts with African American populations as high as possible. It crept its way from Hampton Roads through select Peninsula precincts — at one point no wider than a bridge where it crossed a creek — before coiling itself around part of Richmond at its westernmost terminus. Crafting that Democratic super-district for Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, then the only Black member of Virginia’s congressional delegation, produced several adjacent congressional districts tailored for Republicans.

Federal courts have intervened to rectify egregiously gerrymandered Virginia constructs, including last year when judges redrew lines for 26 House of Delegates districts after finding that the Republican-controlled 2011 reapportionment shoe-horned too many Black voters into too few state House districts, much the way Scott’s district was drawn 10 years earlier. Republicans appealed the lower-court map that created six new Democratic majority districts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they lost a 5-4 decision.

At the start of 2019, optimism was strong that, at last, the Virginia Constitution would be amended to give an all-citizen panel ultimate say on divvying up districts without regard to partisan aims. It explicitly prohibited segregating communities of color into a few districts to leave more White (and presumably more conservative) voters in other districts.

No plan that cut legislators out of picking their constituents was likely to live long once in the hands of legislators. The original plan was gutted and replaced with what appears now on every Virginia ballot. It would establish a 16-member panel, half of them legislators with four each from the House and Senate and equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans from each chamber. The other eight would be citizen members selected by retired judges from lists prepared by legislators.

It’s a legislative move that Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg and a leading advocate against the amendment, called “the ultimate okey doke.”

“Although it is a commission and although it is half legislators and half citizens, at the core of the matter, legislators are ultimately picking the entire commission and controlling the entire process,” Aird said. “It’s not independent by any means.

“There is nothing in this amendment that says we should make sure it is racially and ethnically balanced, that it is geographically balanced, that it is gender balanced. There is no language whatsoever to make sure that the makeup of this commission is representative of the commonwealth, and particularly of Black and Brown representation,” she said.

The commission also has a potential pitfall. Supermajority requirements could make it tough for the commission to agree on new district lines. Dissent from just two legislative members of the same chamber and same party would derail the commission’s work and put the Virginia Supreme Court in charge of drawing the lines.

Aird and members of the Legislative Black Caucus voiced their concerns, yet the resolution won easy bipartisan passage with overwhelming Democratic backing in 2019 — the first of two enactments in years separated by a legislative election required for amendments to the state Constitution.

After last fall’s election gave Democrats legislative majorities — and the power to dictate redistricting for the first time since 1991 — their intraparty rift over Amendment 1 widened. This year, just nine House Democrats supported the amendment, joining 45 Republican delegates to narrowly secure the required second enactment and send the amendment to voters.

Now, with 2.2 million Virginians having already voted, Virginia Democrats present the conflicted and chaotic spectacle of party elders such as Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and U.S. Rep. Don Beyer endorsing Amendment 1 while the Democratic Party of Virginia campaigns to kill it.

Democrats also passed a new law that contains the explicit protections against racial and other forms of gerrymandering that were in earlier versions of amendment legislation. However, it would be up to the courts to hold lawmakers accountable for following that criteria, something they haven’t done in the past with compactness, for example.

A.E. Dick Howard, the University of Virginia law professor who superintended the state Constitution’s 1971 rewrite, says he shares some of Aird’s concerns and her preference for a fully independent commission.

“That would have been cleaner. It would have been a more effective way to prevent gerrymandering,” he said. But he said he will support the ballot amendment because “it’s an important step in the right direction.”

Howard said that while the text of Amendment 1 does not explicitly call out racial gerrymandering, it contains clear prohibitions against it.

“It does say that the districts are to be drawn in accordance with the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Howard said.

Another essential improvement under Amendment 1 is transparency for a process historically done in strict secrecy behind locked doors, limited to only a handful of power brokers. The amendment would guarantee public access to commission meetings and records, he noted.

So seven days and a wakeup before voting on the amendment ends, the Democrats’ dilemma boils down to this: did they come this far and get so close to fall short, or will they make the perfect the enemy of the good?

Medical Doctor Running For Congress In Virginia
MSNBCOctober 20, 2020 (06:00)

The group for it is called Fair Maps VA.

The group against it is called Fair Districts VA.

Both say they’re working to end gerrymandering, and both say it’s the other guys who want to keep it around. They both use the same anti-gerrymandering talking points, like “Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”

The Democratic Party of Virginia is officially against it. But two of its top figures, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, voted for it on their own ballots already. It passed out of a Democratic-controlled General Assembly this year, but Republican leaders and conservative groups are urging their voters to support it.

Against that confusing backdrop, it’s understandable that many Virginia voters, particularly Democrats who for years have heard their party leaders talk up the urgent need for redistricting reform, don’t know what to make of ballot question 1. It asks if the state should create a 16-member, bipartisan redistricting commission to redraw Virginia’s congressional and legislative maps every decade starting in 2021 as new census data comes in.

For years, those who wanted to see redistricting power taken away from the General Assembly pushed for an independent, non-partisan commission, envisioned as a group of citizens who would draw fairer lines than self-interested politicians looking to juice their party’s numbers or protect their own seats.

The proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot this year doesn’t do that, giving half the commission seats to sitting legislators and half to citizens nominated by legislators and appointed by retired judges.

That’s one of the main shortcomings some Democratic lawmakers are highlighting to argue the plan wouldn’t really reform anything, instead allowing a smaller group of politicians and the politically connected to wield redistricting power. Rather than putting a flawed plan in the Constitution and maybe improving it in time for 2031, they say, it’s better to take the time to get it right.

“People across the board that think it ought to be a citizen-led process should all vote no on this,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. “The amendment moves us in a direction that cements legislator involvement.”

That argument has been maddening for amendment supporters. If those insisting they want true independence from the General Assembly get their wish and the amendment is defeated, supporters point out, the General Assembly keeps its constitutional power to draw maps. That means no independence for the 2021 process, but a general promise to do something for 2031.

“Gerrymandering is cemented into the system now. Who do you think controls this?” said Brian Cannon, executive director of redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021. “It’s a false understanding of the status quo at best.”

OneVirginia2021 Executive Director Brian Cannon speaks at a news conference on Feb. 12 in support of a constitutional amendment on redistricting reform. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

That point is reinforced by the state’s official text explaining the amendment to voters, which says a no vote “will leave the sole responsibility for drawing the districts with the General Assembly and the governor.” Opponents have quibbled with that explanation. But it’s legally required to be both neutral and factual, and the Supreme Court of Virginia refused to hear a challenge claiming it isn’t.

Some redistricting reformers say they’d like to see something similar to the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, 14-member, all-citizen panel made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four people with no partisan affiliation. California’s application process is overseen by the state auditor, but partisan leaders have an opportunity to strike applicants they find objectionable.

Regardless of where legislators stand on how much independence from partisan players a good commission needs, there wasn’t enough support in the General Assembly to make a fully independent commission feasible for 2021.

The compromise plan that emerged was the product of a unique political moment, with control of the General Assembly up for grabs in 2019, when Republicans and Democrats weren’t sure which party was going to be in charge for the redistricting year.

Though some opponents have characterized the amendment as a scheme hatched by Republicans, the proposal for a commission with an equal number of legislators and citizens was introduced in early 2019 by Senate Democrats. That resolution became the amendment that passed a Republican-controlled legislature in 2019 and a Democratic-led one in 2020, despite the partisan power shift in between. Under Virginia’s system, it had to pass two years in a row before going to voters for a final up-or-down decision.

After passing with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2019 despite objections from about a dozen members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus in the House, the amendment was almost blocked in 2020 as House Democrats abandoned it in droves. Nine House Democrats joined with 45 Republicans to pass it 54-46.

Democratic House members abandoned the proposed redistricting amendment in big numbers during a floor vote earlier this year. Just nine Democratic delegates joined with Republicans to pass it. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

If Democrats had chosen to scrap the amendment this year and start over, it would’ve killed any chance for constitutional changes in time for the 2021 process.

Several senior lawmakers said allowing some legislative role was critical to drafting something with broad, bipartisan support, the idea being that elected officials are more familiar with how redistricting works and the geography of the areas they represent.

“If you just had straight citizens, who’s to say how that’s going to turn out?” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, who supports the amendment and called arguments against it “pure bullsh**t” during the 2020 regular legislative session. “We did not put a provision in the bill, which some of the legislators wanted, that incumbency would be taken into effect.”

Under Republican control, the Senate passed several redistricting reform plans that routinely failed in the House. That changed in 2019, after a federal court ruled 11 majority-minority districts drawn in the Republican-led, 2011 redistricting had been unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered. That ended with the court redrawing the maps for the 2019 elections, signaling that Republicans were in serious jeopardy of losing their majority.

In an interview, Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, the House speaker in 2019, said that seeing a court-appointed expert from California redraw his district and others changed his thinking on redistricting reform. But he still felt legislators should be involved.

“They know the process,” Cox said. “It’s almost like having a commission that deals with police reform, a citizen commission, and not having anyone who’s actually been in a squad car or ever done it.”

The amendment’s critics say the bipartisan history of gerrymandering shows why they’re pushing for a stronger break from how things have been done in the past.

“To me, if you drew a map that they threw out as unconstitutional against Black people, you maybe shouldn’t be invited back to that table,” said Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News.

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, speaks against the proposed redistricting amendment on the House floor in March. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

During the 2020 session, Price pushed for an alternative, non-binding commission that would have included more prominent protections for minority communities. But she was forced to amend her proposal to include seats for legislators, commenting at the time that she was told she “did not have the votes” for a commission that banned legislators.

Her bill ultimately failed to pass, but many of the House Democrats now saying they can only support a truly independent commission voted for it, even with the seats for legislators added.

Simon acknowledged that a fully independent commission was a tough sell.

“It was impossible in 2019 because Republicans don’t believe in it,” he said. “It became really difficult to do in 2020 because Democrats in the Senate were wedded to their commission they had come up with.”

Others see a simple explanation for why some House Democrats are reluctant to vote for something that would force them to give up their power: They see a chance to use their hard-won majority to draw maps in their interest just like Republicans did in 2011.

“Once you come to that conclusion, you have to come up with some reasons why you’re opposed,” said Cox.

Other arguments against the amendment have centered on the perceived lack of attention to diversity and racial representation, as well as the potential role for the conservative-leaning Supreme Court of Virginia. Critics have suggested that, since either party can deadlock the commission and send the map-drawing process to the Supreme Court, Republicans might choose to take their chances with judges appointed under Republican legislatures.

Supporters have dismissed those concerns as overblown, noting the Supreme Court has recently upheld Democratic positions on major issues like a gun ban at the state Capitol and Gov. Ralph Northam’s COVID-19 shutdown orders. They also point out that the new proposed process will be public, unlike current redistricting, in which lawmakers hash out district lines behind closed doors.

Some Democrats claim they’ve already solved partisan gerrymandering by passing redistricting criteria legislation that says the statewide maps cannot “unduly favor or disfavor any political party.” But alleged violations of that broad standard may be difficult to prove or disprove, and would most likely require a ruling from the state Supreme Court, which tends to defer to legislative authority where laws are vague or ill-defined.

The amendment has been endorsed by numerous newspaper editorial pages, civic organizations and national good-government groups, including the League of Women Voters, the ACLU of Virginia, Common Cause, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

“This is the best the Democrats could do in Virginia,” David Daley, a gerrymandering expert and author of the book “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count,” said at a recent press event with redistricting reform supporters. “And if we’re going to have a process in Virginia in 2020 in which citizens have any seat at the table, this is the way to do it. If this does not happen, the Democrats will have complete control of the process.”

The amendment’s most prominent opponents include the Democratic Party of Virginia (which is officially urging Democrats to vote no on sample ballots and other literature), the Virginia conference of the NAACP and progressive advocacy groups like Progress Virginia and New Virginia Majority.

A recent poll conducted by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy found significant public support for the amendment, with 48 percent of voters in favor, 28 percent opposed and 24 percent undecided.

Though some party leaders have flipped their positions on redistricting reform, the poll suggested rank-and-file voters may not be getting the message. It found 64 percent of likely Democratic voters in favor of the amendment, and Republicans more likely to oppose it.

Still, support for the amendment was weaker than what prior polls on redistricting reform have shown.

“Virginians are learning that Amendment 1 is not independent, nor is it non-partisan,” Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, said in a statement released by anti-amendment group Fair Districts VA.

Amendment supporters are cautiously optimistic that it will pass. Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, a progressive, first-term lawmaker who was one of the nine House Democrats to vote for the amendment, said that’s what makes opposition a “safe play for progressives” who “get to say they were holding out for better without being on the hook if it fails.”

“If this amendment passes there will be nowhere to hide in the next round of reform,” Hudson said. “The only step forward will be full independence. Because that’s what’s hard about the politics right now. People who want more reform and people who want none can come together to oppose the amendment. But they can’t come together on an alternative.”

The People’s Debate – Sen. Mark Warner and Daniel Gade
WTVR CBS 6 October 13, 2020 (56:00)
How to make your vote count in Virginia
Virginia Mercury, Graham MoomawOctober 5, 2020 (Medium)
A voting sign at Pemberton Elementary School in Henrico,, November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

Voting in Virginia was already changing even before COVID-19 arrived.

The combination of a global pandemic and some major shifts in state election laws — ushered in after Democrats took control of the General Assembly — means that when Virginians cast their ballots this year, they can expect things to be a little different.

Here’s what you need to know to make sure your vote counts in November.

When is the election and what’s on the ballot?

The election is Nov. 3.

In addition to the main event — the matchup between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden — U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is facing off against Republican challenger Daniel Gade and all 11 of Virginia’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are on the ballot.

Voters will also be asked to weigh in on a statewide referendum to create a bipartisan redistricting commission that, if approved, would redraw the state’s political maps every 10 years using new U.S. census data. Another state referendum question proposes to create a motor vehicle tax exemption for disabled military veterans.

There are numerous other local races and issues on the ballot depending on where you live, including a special election for vacant House of Delegates seat in the Winchester area and casino referendums in several cities.

Absentee voting 

Early voting, which just got easier due to a change in state law that allows anyone to cast an absentee ballot without needing an excuse, began Sept. 18.

Officials are already seeing big spikes in absentee ballot requests as people seek safe alternatives allowing them to avoid any Election Day crowds, and asking voters to submit their ballot requests early to avoid any issues with a last-minute surge.

You can request an absentee ballot through the state’s online application system.  If you’re not sure if you’re registered to vote, you can check your status here.

What are my options?

All polling places will be open on Election Day with social distancing protocols in place, so anyone who wants to go through the typical in-person voting process can do so. As usual, polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and anyone in line at 7 p.m. will be allowed to vote. You can look up your polling place here.

If you choose to get an absentee ballot through the mail, there are multiple ways to return it.

You can mail it back using the provided envelope, which will include prepaid postage and a tracking code allowing you to keep tabs on your ballot through an online system called Ballot Scout.

Or you can take the ballot back yourself, dropping it off with an employee at your local election office or at one of the drop boxes the General Assembly recently approved.

If you don’t want to rely on the mail but still want to cast your ballot early, in-person absentee voting is going on now at your local elections office and satellite voting offices. You don’t have to fill out an application to cast an absentee ballot in person, you just have to verify your identity when you go.

There are some limitations on mail-in absentee ballots if it’s your first time voting in a particular locality and you registered to vote by mail. There are exemptions for people who might face particular difficulty voting in person, such as college students, military personnel and their spouses, the elderly and people with illnesses or disabilities. If it’s your first time voting in your city or county and you want to vote by mail, check with your local registrar to verify your eligibility.

What are the key deadlines?

The deadline to register to vote in November is Oct. 13.

The deadline to request an absentee ballot through the mail is Oct. 23.

The deadline to vote absentee in person is Oct. 31.

If I vote by mail, will my ballot arrive in time?

There can be complications if you wait until the last minute to mail your ballot back, and that’s a heightened concern for many this year due to slowdowns with the U.S. Postal Service.

If you want a mail-in ballot, the Postal Service recommends requesting one as early as possible and mailing it back before Election Day, preferably at least a week in advance.

In Virginia, election officials will count ballots that come in a few days after the polls close, as long as they’re postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day. Ballots received after noon on Nov. 6 will not be counted. Ballots with a missing or illegible postmark will be counted as long as they come in before the deadline.

Do I still need an ID to vote?

A change to state law this year means photo IDs are no longer strictly required. But if you have one, you should still bring it to streamline the process. Anyone who doesn’t have an ID can get a regular ballot, but only after they sign a statement affirming they are who they say they are.

Anyone who doesn’t have an ID and refuses to sign the statement can cast a provisional ballot, which will be set aside until election officials can determine whether the person is or isn’t a valid voter.

Other changes to state law expanded the types of identification documents that will be accepted, allowing voters to use expired driver’s licenses, bank statements, utility bills and paychecks to verify their identity. College students will also be able to use any higher education ID, regardless of whether it includes a photo or was issued by a non-Virginia school.

A complete list of acceptable IDs is available here.

(Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Three million dollars for public outreach. Nearly $2.5 million for refrigerators and thermometers. And more than $71 million for mass vaccination clinics, where hundreds of thousands of Virginians could be immunized against COVID-19.

Virginia’s plan, released to the Mercury Friday, shows the size and scale of a public health campaign designed to protect millions against a historic virus. The plan was submitted to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for review this week and remains “a living document as more information is understood, more vaccines are introduced, and any other considerations develop,” wrote Joseph Hilbert, the Virginia Department of Health’s deputy commissioner for governmental and regulatory affairs, in a Friday email.

But the plan also underscores many of the factors that health workers will contend with when it comes to distributing any future vaccine. While VDH is preparing for a potential Nov. 1 release — a date requested by the Trump administration after the president suggested a vaccine could be ready as early as this month — there’s “no absolute guarantee” of when any safe and effective immunization will be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said Christy Gray, the director of the department’s division of immunization.

Federal health officials have called a release before Election Day “very unlikely.”

What’s clear is that vaccination will be incremental and unprecedented compared to any previous disease outbreaks within the last decade. Virginia developed pandemic influenza planning more than a decade ago during the H1N1 swine flu outbreak — plans that have informed some of the state’s current coronavirus procedures.

But those mass vaccination efforts were still significantly different than what’s required for the COVID-19 pandemic — a potentially deadly virus that places certain types of people, including the elderly and infirm and those with other health conditions, most at risk. Virginia’s plans call for health experts to consider infection control measures at immunization sites, raising the possibility of drive-through clinics or events at large indoor venues that leave room for social distancing.

There are also significant outstanding questions about the vaccine itself, including how many doses will initially be available. While the federal government will determine how much of the vaccine is distributed to Virginia, according to the state’s planning document, health officials are planning a phased approach under the assumption that only limited amounts will be available when it’s first released.

The initial planning scenario tasks state officials with developing priority groups for the first distribution. Under the state’s plan, those include residents at long-term care facilities — which in Virginia account for nearly 50 percent of the state’s total COVID-19 deaths, according to VDH data — as well as health care workers and “people who play a key role in keeping essential functions of society running and cannot socially distance in the workplace.”

Those positions have yet to be determined, but could include first responders, teachers and childcare providers, according to the state’s planning document. Priority consideration will also be given to other high-risk groups, including Virginians aged 65 or older, people of color — who have also been disproportionately affected by the virus — and people living in congregate living facilities such as prisons, homeless shelters, or even college campuses.

“In the event that Virginia’s allocation during Phase 1 is insufficient to vaccinate all those included in the initial populations of focus, it is important for the Virginia Unified Command to identify and estimate the subset groups within these initial populations of focus to determine who will receive the first available doses of COVID-19 vaccine,” the plan reads.

More than 20 different divisions and agencies have a role in the 60-page document, including the Virginia Department of Education and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which are expected to coordinate with local health departments on immunizing students and employees at K-12 schools and college campuses.

The plan calls for nearly $121 million in total spending for vaccination efforts, including more than $3.3 million for supplemental supplies such as Band-Aids, syringes and needles. The state anticipates paying nearly $40 million for a pharmacy benefits administrator to manage claims for un- and underinsured patients and distribute payments to pharmacies and other community providers for administering vaccines.

The vaccine itself will be supplied to the state free of charge, but the CDC says that administrative costs will likely be shouldered by state and local governments. Providers must vaccinate patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.

VDH will distribute money to local health departments to assist with mass vaccination, according to the plan. But it’s still not entirely clear how the state will fund the effort. Virginia Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne recently said that roughly $700 million in remaining federal CARES Act money could go toward the state’s immunization campaign.

Gray said another complication could be the dosages for any future immunization. Many of the vaccines currently under trial will require two doses, “separated by 21 or 28 days,” according to the plan.

“Those vaccines are not interchangeable with each other, so that’s another consideration that wasn’t necessarily the case during any previous disease outbreaks,” she added. In other words, if patients receive an initial dose of a vaccine from a certain pharmaceutical company, their doctor, pharmacist or local health department will need to follow up with them to make sure they receive a second dose of the same vaccine within a certain timeframe.

It’s an effort that requires massive coordination and also the involvement of doctors across Virginia. The state’s planning document encourages patients to be immunized at their “medical home” whenever possible, and describes the early recruitment of doctors as one of the most important early factors in mass vaccination.

Earlier this month, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver sent a letter to providers asking them to register with the state if they planned on distributing a COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Sandy Chung, a Northern Virginia-based pediatrician and president of the Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said most primary care physicians already have experience in giving out vaccinations to large number of patients, but the state is likely hoping to recruit nontraditional providers such as school systems or large employers.

“I think that’s what they’re trying to assess — which health care providers are able to do this or willing to do this,” she added. “They need to know who’s ready.”

House of Delegates members walk past the south portico around at the end of the veto session at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, VA Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The House members were meeting outside in a tent instead of the House Chamber in order to practice social distancing due to the COVID-19 virus. (AP Photo/POOL, Bob Brown)

In the wee hours of an unseasonably balmy, humid Sunday in mid-March, legislative staff on the ninth and 10th floors of Capitol Square’s decrepit, old General Assembly Building had opened their windows wide to mitigate the swelter from unrelenting, clanking steam radiators. Beyond exhaustion from a week of late nights, many hours of work lay ahead for them.

Those top floors were rarefied real estate, home to the most powerful committees in state government — those with the final say over how the state spends tens of billions of dollars — and the expert staffs who did the heavy lifting. And on this last long night, days behind schedule and hours past the 2010 legislature’s scheduled final adjournment, a dozen delegates and senators cloistered behind closed doors, bickering and dickering over the fine print of what would be the $77 billion state government spending blueprint through June 2012.

It’s known as the budget conference, an innocuous-sounding insider term that means little or nothing to ordinary Virginians. But the agreement that rival House and Senate members sealed with a handshake around 2 a.m. on that warm, late-winter Sunday — and at the conclusion of budget conferences every year — was highly consequential to their daily lives from the taxes they pay to funding for their kids’ schools and everything in between. It’s no less true in the current special session as House and Senate budget negotiators try to square differing versions of a pandemic-ravaged proposed budget of $137 billion, 77 percent larger than that budget adopted 10 years earlier.

No other piece of legislation holds as much sway as state budget bills, which not only form the 24-month financial framework for the commonwealth but also supersedes other state law. That such critical legislating is done at the last minute in sometimes chaotic, often contentious late-night sessions well out of public view by sleep-starved people amid the intermingled odors of cold pizza and burned coffee did not — and should not — inspire confidence.

Nobody has seen the budget conference process from more different perspectives than Bill Leighty, an immensely accomplished senior state government veteran who cut his teeth in the 1980s with a seven-year stint on the Senate Finance Committee staff. From there, Leighty would direct the sprawling Virginia Retirement System before serving as chief of staff to two successive governors, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

“What makes them (budget conferences) so powerful is that what they agree on and put in the conference report goes directly to the floor and can only be voted up or down — no amendments,” said Leighty, now retired and an adviser to the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. “And, because they’re presented so late, everyone is loath to send it back to conference for a redo.”

How late? In 2010, the committee staffs had only 15 hours that Sunday to write the budget conferees’ agreement into its final form and have printed copies on all 140 legislators’ desks for that up-or-down floor vote, leaving them barely enough time to go home, change clothes and return to Capitol Square. The House and Senate convened at 5 p.m., agreed to the conferees’ work and adjourned sine die before 6.

That’s the lawmaking equivalent of driving down a twisting, one-lane mountain road on a moonless night with one working headlight and brakes that didn’t pass inspection. Yet somehow, mainly through the exacting work of highly professional staffs fighting off sleep with energy drinks and raw adrenalin, it has never jumped the guardrails and tumbled into the abyss.

Budget conferences don’t always bust their deadlines, and it’s not as though there aren’t weighty issues at play when they do. In 2010, like this year, the state was in the grips of a monstrous economic collapse that ravaged the official revenue estimates on which the budget is built. Both years forced significant cuts in state operating outlays.

In 2004, during a battle over reforms Warner proposed to fix what he called a structural imbalance in the state budget (Republicans labeled it a tax increase, and they weren’t wrong), the House and Senate deferred passage of a budget to an April special session. In the end, Warner got most of what he wanted from a GOP House and Senate through the budget bill.

Leighty recalls that budget battle as significant because of its use of the “repealer clause,” a provision in the budget that trumps statutory law. He said he authored dozens of them over his years on the Finance Committee and said the clauses can be spotted in any budget bill by looking for sections that begin with the words “Notwithstanding any other provision of law… .”

“We put all the tax changes in the (2004) budget bill so that it overrode tax law,” he said.

Opacity and even occasional sleight-of-hand is an old tradition of budget conferences. Reporters and their voice on Capitol Square — the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association — have stormed and huffed about it many times over the decades (including two years when this writer was its president) to no avail.

Over the decades, conferees have gone to bizarre, almost zany lengths to shield the byzantine proceedings from public view. In his years as a cub Finance Committee staffer, Leighty was assigned by the committee chairman, the late Sen. Ed Willey, to walk conspicuously past the cramped press filing room in the musty bowels of the Capitol with a boxload of budget documents and calculators, luring reporters in the opposite direction of where the conferees would actually meet.

“Ed Willey had one hard-and-fast rule: that the conference committee had to meet in a public building. So we picked some wonderful places: the Science Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the budget offices, the Old Finance Building,” he said.

In one such cat-and-mouse adventure in the 1980s, the conferees had covertly gathered in an empty room in the then-mothballed Old Finance Building (since renovated to its former splendor and renamed the Oliver Hill Building) that sits just down the hill from the Capitol and nextdoor to the Executive Mansion. The tactic worked, Leighty recalled, until Joe Gatins, a sharp-eyed reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, spotted a single room with lights blazing in a darkened, derelict building.

“He went through the system of tunnels that connect the buildings on Capitol Square and popped up right in the middle of the conference committee,” Leighty said with a chuckle. “When he did, they scattered.”

What does the public miss in those closed cabals? It’s hard to say.

We know the items that are in conflict between the House and Senate budget bills, we know there is argument — sometimes loud enough to penetrate the closed doors — and we know there is compromise. The biggest disputes were not partisan but between House and Senate members battling over conflicting provisions in their rival budget bills. Their final resolution on those disagreements was usually pretty clear when it was over.

This week, that process starts anew, but possibly with a wrinkle. It’s not clear whether the budget conferees will gather socially distanced in person (doubtful considering that floor sessions have been conducted virtually) or via Zoom conference. And if it’s the latter, will the press (and public) be able to watch?

That’s a prospect that would have been unimaginable when Joe Gatins was sleuthing for stealthy conferees.

US election swing states: Virginia is for… Democrats?
New Statesman, Emily TamkinJuly 23, 2020 (Long)

The story of how the former Confederacy capital turned blue is one of demographic shifts, a Democratic political machine and Donald Trump.

The story of how Virginia went blue in presidential years is one of demographic shifts, a Democratic political machine and Trump. It’s the story of how a state’s voting patterns can change – and how politicians know all too well that they can change back again.

“Virginia is a blue state”, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

Virginia’s economy is, compared to elsewhere in the country, “recession resistant. That makes it an appealing place for people to move when they’re thinking about their futures,” Farnsworth explained. People move from all over the country – and indeed all over the world – to live and work in Virginia.

Here are the new laws that take effect July 1
Channel 6 Richmond, Jake BurnsJune 30, 2020 (Short)

After controlling both chambers of the state legislature and the executive mansion for the first time in a generation, hundreds of new laws passed by the Democratic controlled Virginia General Assembly and signed by Governor Ralph Northam (D) take effect July 1.

Northam signed more than 1,200 bills that cleared the General Assembly during the 2020 session.

Many of those bills are duplicates, commending resolutions, or technical tweaks to existing law. Although many Virginians might not see or know the direct impact, several bills will directly impact daily life and discussion in Virginia.

“We’re excited about what’s going to happen and what will become law at midnight,” said Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond). “We are putting Virginia on the right side of history. Although, we may be getting on the right side of history a little late for some things.”

Kaine predicts win in effort to rename bases that honor Confederates
Virginia Mercury, Allison Stevens July 13, 2020 (Medium)

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine is preparing for battle with President Donald Trump over renaming military facilities that honor Confederates — and he’s expecting to win.

In an interview with the Mercury, Kaine said he believes the GOP-controlled Senate would override a possible presidential veto of a defense policy bill that would begin a process to rename the facilities. Doing so would require support from two-thirds of those voting.

Republicans hold 53 seats — or 53% — in the U.S. Senate. Democrats hold 233 seats — about 54% — in the U.S. House.

“I think we need to put it on his desk,” Kaine said. “If he were to veto this bill, I think we would override it.”

If the bill becomes law, it would be a major victory for the movement for racial justice and equality, which has intensified in recent months.

Suburban voters like Schmiegelow represent an existential challenge for Virginia Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide election since 2009. They’ve lost control of the executive mansion, the state legislature, and a majority of the state’s congressional seats.

The latest blow came last week when almost 1,300 bills passed by the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly went into effect. Republican laws on everything from abortion to voter ID were wiped off the book.

Part of the problem for Virginia Republicans is the president, according to Shaun Kenney, the former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.

“The suburbs just do not react well to Donald Trump in the White House,” Kenney said. “There’s just no way of getting around that.”

Ralph Northam gives coronavirus update
PBS NewsHourJune 18, 2020 (53:30)
A Message from Governor Northam on Juneteenth
Governor Ralph NorthamJune 19, 2020 (02:20)


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