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Big uptick in vaccine supplies for states expected soon
Virginia Mercury, Laura OlsonFebruary 24, 2021 (Short)

 Executives from five COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers told Congress Tuesday that they expect to significantly boost the number of shots delivered to states in the coming weeks.

Pfizer will increase weekly shipments to more than 13 million doses by mid-March, an increase from the 4 to 5 million doses shipped weekly in early February, the company’s chief business officer, John Young, told a U.S. House panel.

Moderna, the other vaccine that has received federal authorization for emergency use, expects to double its monthly vaccine deliveries by April to more than 40 million doses per month.

Fairfax County is ranked as one of the wealthiest communities in Virginia. It’s also one of the healthiest.

As of 2020, Fairfax led the state in measures including length of life, access to exercise opportunities and low rates of poor health indicators such as smoking and adult obesity, according to annual rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. From 2015 to 2019, the county’s median household income was $124,831 (nationally, it’s around $68,703, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

Currently, Fairfax County is also leading Virginia in vaccine distribution. In late January, health officials shifted the state’s strategy, routing doses through local health districts based on their percentage of the state’s population. As Virginia’s largest locality with more than 1.1 million residents, that left Fairfax with the largest share.

Even before then, the Fairfax County Health Department had requested — and received — more than eight times as many shots as other local health districts, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. From Dec. 22 to Jan. 23, Fairfax received a total of 74,625 doses. Over the same time period, the Richmond-Henrico Health District, received a total of 19,550 doses for both localities, which have a combined population of nearly 560,000.

Emily’s Tale: Where government programs fail, humanity must step up
Virginia Mercury, Bob Lewis, opinionFebruary 22, 2021 (Short)

Government spending and programs are not the only answer to some of the nation’s most persistent needs.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t enact more federal relief for people who’ve been financially wrecked by no fault of their own during the coronavirus pandemic. We should, and soon! But target the spending to those whose livelihoods and economic security have been crushed, their families left homeless and queued in long lines outside food pantries. Put the cash where it’s needed, not with those who’ve fared well.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t spend — and mightily — on our crumbling national infrastructure, on America’s vulnerable electrical grid and information technology networks. The past month’s headlines prove the dire urgency of it and there is ready bipartisan concurrence on those needs, yet somehow nothing gets done.

When Virginia senators passed a bill requiring local school divisions to provide in-person instruction by the summer, some anticipated the legislation would face an uphill battle in the House.

Nearly a month later, though, the same legislation is now on the verge of passing both chambers after several rounds of revisions — and mounting pressure to return children to school buildings.

Just a few days after the Senate vote, Gov. Ralph Northam directed Virginia’s 132 local divisions to begin offering in-person classes by March 15, saying that months of remote learning was “taking a toll on our children and our families.” Northam’s announcement followed a pledge from President Joe Biden to reopen schools within his first 100 days of office, and new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on safely reopening schools and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in buildings.

Virginia legislature sends death penalty repeal to Northam
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 22, 2021 (Short)

Virginia lawmakers gave final passage to legislation abolishing the death penalty Monday, sending the bill to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he’ll sign it.

Northam’s signature would make Virginia the first state in the South and the 23rd in the nation to end capital punishment.

“This legislation says a lot about who we are as a commonwealth, what kind of values we have as a commonwealth,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. “It says a lot about how we value human life. It says a lot about how our commonwealth is going to move past some of our darkest moments in terms of how this punishment was applied and who it was applied to. This vote also says a lot about justice.”

Push to extend minimum wage increase to farmworkers voted down by Virginia Senate
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 23, 2021 (Short)

When the General Assembly voted last year to ramp up Virginia’s minimum wage to $12, agricultural employees were among a handful of groups excluded from the increase — an exemption that traces its roots to Jim Crow-era segregation.

Lawmakers in the Senate said Monday they stand by that decision, voting down legislation passed by the House of Delegates that would have extended the state’s employment laws to farmworkers for the first time.

“I understand the exuberance and I understand the need to move forward, but we just had a robust discussion on this last year,” said Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, one of 10 lawmakers on the Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee who opposed the legislation.

Electric utility rate reform efforts quashed by Senate committee
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongFebruary 15, 2021 (Short)

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday swiftly killed the last of more than half a dozen bills this session that aimed to reform Virginia’s system of electric utility rate review, which is seen by Wall Street investors as favorable to the utilities and by critics as an example of legislative capture by companies with an outsize influence over the General Assembly.

The move angered the growing number of groups and lawmakers of both parties in Virginia that over the past few years have been lobbying to roll back regulations seen as enabling excessive profits for the state’s two largest electric monopolies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.

“It’s a shame that the committee decided that it should not be the policy of the commonwealth that monopoly utility rates should be just and reasonable,” said Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who frequently argues against the utilities before the State Corporation Commission. “It was clear that the Senate committee had no intention of debating the merits or the policy of the bills today.”

Fifteen years ago, more than 1.3 million Virginians said marriage should only mean a union between a man and a woman and same-sex couples shouldn’t be entitled to similar status that would give them the same rights under the law as straight couples.

That was the view of 57 percent of Virginians who voted in 2006, more than enough to put a same-sex marriage ban in the state Constitution.

Much has changed since then. And Democratic lawmakers want to give a new generation of Virginians an opportunity to make a different statement in 2022.

A bill that would let millions of electric customers in Virginia again begin purchasing renewable energy from companies other than the utility that controls their territory cleared the House of Delegates last week but now faces a Senate committee that struck the proposal down in 2020.

“The Senate oftentimes is a higher hurdle to get over,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, the sponsor of House Bill 2048. “I think we’ve got a puncher’s chance, right? So we’re going to go in and give it all we got.”

Bourne’s bill targets a provision of state code that allows licensed third-party suppliers to sell “100 percent renewable energy” to customers in utility territory as long as the utility isn’t offering the same product. On the books since 2007, the law was rarely used until relatively recently, when renewables prices began to fall and more Americans began to shy away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

At General Assembly’s halftime, consumers hold a narrow lead
Virginia Mercury, Ivy MainFebruary 8, 2021 (Medium)

Virginia is, famously, a state that prides itself on being business-friendly. That makes it all the more interesting that a number of bills favoring consumers have made it through the House. Democrats have led the charge, but several of the bills earned bipartisan support even in the face of utility opposition.

This doesn’t guarantee their luck will hold. Democrats aren’t just more numerous in the House, they are also younger and more independent-minded than the old guard Democrats in control of the Senate. The second half of the session is going to be a lot more challenging for pro-consumer legislation.

The action will be especially hot in the coming days around five bills dealing with utility reform and a customer’s “right to shop” for renewable energy (HB2048). All these bills passed the House with at least some Republican support. But they are headed to Senate Commerce and Labor, which, though dominated by Democrats, has a long history of protecting utilities.

Democrats pushing to create incentives for drivers to buy electric vehicles as part of a broader goal of weaning Virginia’s transportation sector off fossil fuels are running into a roadblock: too little state money in a budget constrained by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have more priorities now than we do funding,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who this session is carrying a bill to create an electric vehicle rebate program. “This would be a really tough priority to be able to fund right now.”

Slowing climate change through decarbonization has been a major priority of Virginia Democrats since they won majorities in both chambers of the legislature in 2019, handing them control of state government. Last year they passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a marquee environmental law that committed the state’s electric grid to being carbon-free by 2050. This year they are focusing on transportation, which according to federal calculations is responsible for nearly half of Virginia’s carbon emissions.

Va. House leaders block delegate’s effort to force vote on right-to-work repeal
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw –February 3, 2021 (Short)

The right-to-work law, which dates back to 1947 in Virginia, prevents unions from forcing workers to pay union dues as a condition of their employment, which effectively weakens organized labor.

Carter is running as a staunch progressive in Democratic gubernatorial field that also includes former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.

Simon, a co-sponsor of the legislation to repeal right-to-work, said that even if Carter got his bill onto the House floor it would not pass. He also called his motion to reject the maneuver a “purely procedural vote.”

Virginia Senate votes to abolish death penalty
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverFebruary 3, 2021 (Short)

Lawmakers in the Virginia Senate voted Wednesday to abolish the death penalty, setting the state on a course to become the first in the South to end capital punishment.

“If we look back 50 years from now, the electric chair, the lethal injection table — they’re going to be sitting in a museum,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the bill. “This thing is going to be a museum piece and people are going to look back and wonder how it ever was we used these things.”

The legislation passed on a party-line vote, with all 21 of the Democrats in the chamber supporting it. One Republican, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, abstained. The bill would commute the sentences of the two men currently on Virginia’s death row to life sentences with no possibility of parole.

Virginia is for stoners? Democrats press legalization in new territory
Politico, Mona ZhangFebruary 2, 2021 (Medium)

State lawmakers are angling to pass legislation before the session ends Feb. 11.

 

In the past year, the state has ended criminal penalties for minor marijuana offenses and established a medical marijuana program. Now, Virginia lawmakers are scrambling to pass full legalization before their 30-day legislative session wraps up in less than two weeks.

If signed into law, the move would represent weed’s deepest incursion into the southeast, where only a handful of states have even embraced medical marijuana and still have some of the nation’s harshest punishments over the drug.

Legalization still faces pushback from many Republicans, cops and substance abuse treatment professionals, who argue the state is moving way too fast on an issue with huge public health ramifications.

 

More than three years after Amazon announced that it was expanding beyond its current Seattle headquarters, construction at the Virginia site — located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. — is now well underway. Dubbed PenPlace, the newly unveiled proposal for the project’s second phase will provide a further 2.8 million square feet of office space across three 22-story buildings.

The site’s focal point will be The Helix, a tree-covered glass structure where a series of “alternative work environments” will be set amid indoor gardens and greenery from the nearby area, tended to by a team of horticulturalists. According to the architecture firm behind the project, NBBJ, a spiral “hill climb” will meanwhile allow employees and visitors to ascend the outside of the structure.

Virginia Republicans appear to be sticking with their plans to hold a convention to select their nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

The decision has not come easily. The party’s central committee has been divided for weeks, leading to procedural deadlock, convoluted parliamentary maneuvers and increasingly heated debate that on Saturday left members exasperated.

“We have had cursing on this call; the last meeting devolved into people yelling,” said Willie Deutsch, a committee member representing the state’s 1st Congressional District. “There comes a time when we have to come together as a party and stop the vicious incivility and attacks.”

The central committee, which governs the operations of the state party and includes 80 members from around the state, had already decided to hold a convention at a meeting in December.

The company that operates Virginia’s only private prison doled out campaign contributions to 29 Virginia lawmakers ahead of a push to pass legislation banishing the for-profit corrections industry from the state, according to campaign finance records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

And when the bill came before a Senate panel last week for its first hearing, it died a quick and sudden death, with some of the legislators who received the donations speaking most forcefully against it.

Lawmakers, who almost always maintain that there is no connection between campaign contributions and their legislative decision making, called it a coincidence.

“Did not even realize they made a contribution,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who received $500 from the company and spoke against the bill at length during last week’s committee hearing. He attributed his opposition to a convincing phone call from a lobbyist and the fact that it would not address other prison contractors he views as more problematic, such as the companies that charge inmates inflated prices for phone calls and packs of ramen.

McAuliffe dominates gubernatorial fundraising, reporting more cash than all opponents combined
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw –January 16, 2021 (Short)

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe entered 2021 with more money in the bank than all other candidates for governor combined, according to year-end campaign finance reports that were due Friday.

McAuliffe, who was expected to have a strong money advantage given his background in political fundraising and ties to national Democrats, began the year with more than $5.5 million on hand.

Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy reported almost $1.3 million on hand, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond reported about $633,000 and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax reported nearly $80,000.

Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, who just officially entered the field Jan. 1, reported about $7,000 on hand in his House of Delegates re-election account.

Matchmaker, matchmaker make Democrats a match
Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jeff SchapiroJanuary 15, 2021 (Short)

Democrats agree their ticket can’t be three white guys and it shouldn’t be overweighted to the party’s anchor, Northern Virginia. The backlash to Donald Trump, the fury over George Floyd and the aftershocks of Ralph Northam’s blackface moment — all factors in the ballooning field — demand a ticket that looks like the New Virginia.

If only Democrats, mindful of demographic and geographic balance, could assemble it the old-fashioned way, the un-democratic way in which the whims of grandees carried disproportionate weight. This worked when the party was a white segregationist cabal and, because of laws limiting access to the polls, only a sliver of eligible population voted.

Modern Democrats acknowledge that synching up slates of candidates ahead of the June primary is perilous and would fuel resentments that would weaken the party. That doesn’t mean they don’t consider the possibility — as an abstract exercise. Put another way: Democrats can dream.

Northam directs school divisions to start making plans for reopening
Virginia Mercury, Kate MastersJanuary 15, 2021 (Medium)
Children head to school in Goochland County. (NBC12 via Goochland County Public Schools)

Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest message to local school systems is to start thinking about reopening — and soon.

“In the short term, all of our school divisions need to be making plans for how to reopen,” he said at a news briefing on Thursday. “It’s not going to happen next week. But I want our schools to come from this starting point: how do we get schools open safely?”

Some division leaders said the new directive — accompanied by interim guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and Department of Education — represented a significant departure from the state’s earlier messaging on in-person instruction. Virginia’s initial guidance, released in July, emphasized that the final decision on reopening laid “squarely in the hands of local school boards” amid uncertain evidence on the role of children in COVID-19 transmission.

But a new letter from Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane and state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver assured superintendents, school leadership and local health departments that “data increasingly suggest that school reopenings are unlikely to contribute significantly to community transmission when rates of community transmission are low and schools have infection prevention measures in place.”

The accompanying guidance includes a decision-making matrix that elevates individual mitigation measures over levels of community transmission. In a separate briefing later on Thursday, Lane said many divisions have been basing their reopening decisions primarily on top indicators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advise schools to consider community case rates and the percentage of positive tests over the last two weeks.

New guidance from the Virginia Department of Education urges schools to consider individual COVID-19 mitigation measures over community transmission when making decisions on reopening.

But Lane said heavier consideration should go to the ability of local schools to implement mitigation measures such as mask usage, sanitation and social distancing. Other main considerations include whether there’s evidence of spread within school buildings themselves, as well as the impact that school closures have had on the surrounding community.

“Even if they’re in the highest category of community transmission — and even more so for low and moderate — we recommend that they maximize in-person learning as much as possible,” Lane said.

The recommendations also call on schools to prioritize instruction for more vulnerable students, including young learners, students with disabilities and English language learners. And instead of making district-wide and long-term decisions — opting for remote learning over an entire quarter or semester, for example — officials say schools should have the flexibility to phase out decisions after a few weeks.

“If there’s low absenteeism, there’s no case transmission in buildings, your staff capacity isn’t strained — that school should have some in-person options,” Lane said. “If there’s an outbreak in a school, certainly think of closing for some time. But if there are no outbreaks and no transmission in the school community, we’re saying you should open as long as you can do mitigation strategies.”

However, as contact tracing resources have grown increasingly strained, most local health departments are prioritizing outbreaks and other cases that pose a significant public health risk. If multiple students or staff members test positive after close contact or sharing a potential exposure, health officials will likely investigate to determine if there was in-school transmission. But there’s little data on how most individual cases were contracted, and many local health officials have warned it’s become increasingly difficult to catch infected students or staff before they enter school buildings.

Reopening decisions have sparked fierce debate in local communities since Northam first announced a framework to bring students back to the classroom — four months after becoming one of the first governors in the country to close schools for the remainder of the spring semester.

Lane emphasized that the state never required schools to adopt remote instruction after releasing its first round of guidance in July. But those guidelines heavily emphasized CDC recommendations and asked schools to notify VDOE if they planned to deviate from the state’s framework.

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By early September, the majority of local school divisions — 67 in total — had chosen to begin the fall semester remotely. As of Thursday, that number had dropped to 52. But Keith Perrigan, the superintendent for Bristol Public Schools in Southwest Virginia, said much of the ongoing caution stemmed from the original guidance, which took a more incremental approach to bringing students back to the classroom.

“This is a huge change,” he said. “The previous phase guidance, it was probably more of a recommendation to be cautious. And I think the new guidance is to try your very best to reopen. If you can mitigate appropriately, you ought to do what you can to get back in school.”

There’s still no mandate for school divisions to follow the state’s revised guidance. Lane said Thursday that the Virginia Constitution left the final decision with local school boards. But education officials also faced heavy criticism from some superintendents earlier this year for allowing local divisions to deviate from the original plan.

State Superintendent James Lane in 2016, when he was named superintendent for Chesterfield Public Schools. (NBC12)

Some school systems have already made the decision to stay closed until at least the early spring — something Lane said he’d recommend reconsidering in light of the new guidance and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. But there are also continued debates even in districts that have prioritized in-person learning. In Chesterfield County, which announced plans to bring back elementary students next month, parents launched a petition calling on the school system to reverse the decision and keep schools mostly closed until teachers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Both Northam and Lane faced significant questioning over the timing of the new guidelines, given that many schools have already announced reopening decisions for the spring. Virginia is also experiencing an ongoing surge of COVID-19 which some models suggest could continue until February. Rates of community transmission are consistently higher across Virginia than they’ve been at any other point during the pandemic. Daily new cases have risen in all five geographic regions throughout the early days of January, and hospitalizations are at an all-time high. Many health systems have voluntarily canceled elective surgeries or announced new surge plans to boost capacity for an ongoing influx of cases.

Lane said announcing the new guidance would give school districts the opportunity to prepare their plans in the coming weeks — even as Virginia contemplates longer-term changes such as year-round instruction to make up for learning loss during the pandemic. Northam also touted the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines as an important step in returning students safely to the classroom.

“While getting everyone vaccinated isn’t necessary to reopening schools, it will make it a lot easier,” he said. Eleven local health districts have begun vaccinating educators — or plan to start soon — after moving into Phase 1b of the state’s vaccine campaign.

Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks. Chesterfield returned to all virtual learning after Thanksgiving. (Chesterfield County Public Schools)

But the timeline for the rest of the state remains unclear. As of Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Virginia in the low bottom third of all U.S. states when it came to immunizing residents. The same day, VDH’s vaccine reporting dashboard showed that only about 25 percent of shots distributed across the state had made their way into patients’ arms.

And throughout November and December, some health districts advised in-person schools to again close their buildings, warning that the surging cases made it impossible for them to trace and investigate new infections. In Bristol, Perrigan said it was the first dose of vaccines — administered by the local health department earlier this week — that helped reassure teachers more than anything else.

“That’s what had the biggest impact — the availability of vaccines,” he said. “I think a lot of pressure was released once our staff was able to get that first round.”

State of the Commonwealth 2021
VPMJanuary 14, 2021 (58:16)
Democrats eye vehicles as the next target for cutting carbon emissions
Virginia Mercury, Sarah VogelsongJanuary 14, 2021 (Short)
An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

While Virginia Democrats’ big environmental push of 2020 was the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping omnibus measure designed to eliminate carbon emissions from the state’s power grid by 2050, during the 2021 session they’re setting their sights on a tougher and more diffuse source of carbon: transportation.

According to 2017 figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, almost half of Virginia’s carbon emissions  48 percent  come from transportation. Electric power, by contrast, accounts for almost a third, at 29 percent.

But while power grid emissions come largely from a few dozen generating plants fueled by coal, gas and oil, transportation emissions come from literally millions of sources. More than 8.4 million vehicles are registered in the commonwealth, according to 2020 data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The vast majority of those are powered by gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines, with electric vehicles numbering just shy of 150,000, most of them hybrids.

“The transportation sector is where we can have the most gains now in terms of getting carbon out of the atmosphere,” said Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, who is sponsoring two bills that aim to encourage electric vehicle use.

Replacing Virginians’ gas-powered vehicles with electric ones will be a daunting lift. Unlike many other states, Virginia currently has no incentives in place for electric vehicle adoption, and price tags for proposals to both incentivize such purchases and build up the infrastructure to support their expansion are large. One recent study conducted by a working group through the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy found that a proposed rebate program would require $43 million in funding to cover rebates for approximately 13,000 electric vehicles.

Still, many Democrats, who control the legislature and the governor’s office, argue that with climate change accelerating and increased flooding due to sea level rise in the low-lying Hampton Roads region, action is needed.

“We’re now in the position where the public, I believe, is driving the legislators to say, number one, we’ve got to do something about the environment, but number two, there’s options now that we’ve never had before” said Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, during a virtual town hall about electric vehicles this December. “We need to get on board.”

Looking to California — and Maryland — for new emissions standards

Among environmentalists, this session’s top-line legislation is a bill being carried by Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, that would allow the State Air Pollution Control Board to adopt low-emission and zero-emission vehicle standards set by California beginning no earlier than 2023 and no later than 2025.

The Clean Air Act of 1970, the nation’s preeminent air quality law, prohibits any state from setting its own emissions standards for new vehicles but provides a waiver of that restriction for California, which already had standards on its books at the time of the law’s passage and was suffering from widespread smog and other pollution. Other states that wish to set emissions standards more stringent than federal ones are allowed to adopt California’s  a road taken by 15 jurisdictions, including Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. (Three other states are in the process of considering adoption.)

Bagby’s legislation, House Bill 1965, would put Virginia on a path toward adopting not only these low-emission vehicle, or LEV, standards but zero-emission vehicle, or ZEV, standards mandating that a certain percentage of all cars sold by manufacturers in Virginia be electric. Under the Clean Air Act, neither can go into effect for at least two years after approval by the federal government.

Advocates say the measures, collectively known as the Advanced Clean Cars Program, are essential for carbon reduction goals.

“It’s really important that we pass this bill this year, because once the regulation is finalized, there’s a mandatory two-year wait before manufacturers need to comply,” said Lena Lewis, energy and climate policy manager for the Nature Conservancy, which along with groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club Virginia and the Virginia Conservation Network is supporting the bill. “Given the urgency and the pace at which climate change is happening, we need to react to it with the seriousness which this problem demands.”

Auto dealers, though, have balked. The Virginia Automobile Dealers Association opposed a similar measure in 2020 and this December sent a letter to the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committees asking that a stakeholder group be convened to study electric vehicle deployment and that consideration of a “comprehensive plan to decrease vehicle emissions” be brought forward in 2022.

“Virginia dealers support the adoption of EVs. They have adapted to changes in their industry for generations, and electric vehicles represent just the latest in a long line of advancements,” said Don Hall, president and CEO of the association, in an email. But he said the zero-emission vehicle standard would require dealers to carry “vehicles that may be too expensive or not in demand by consumers” on their lot.

“Virginia should only consider ZEV mandates in conjunction with the necessary commitment of resources to assure successful implementation of the regulations without unfair impact on any party, including dealers,” he said.

In its letter to the committee chairs, VADA emphasized the need for more infrastructure investment prior to the creation of any new mandate.

“If Virginia wants to emulate California, then the Commonwealth must also match California’s investment,” the association wrote.

Bagby called the request to delay action until 2022 “unfortunate.”

“We have acknowledged that this can’t start immediately and we can’t expect those cars to show up on the lots overnight,” he said. But, he added, the Advanced Clean Car standards would put “a timeline in place,” with an expected start of 2025.

“It’s time to get the wheels in motion,” he said.

Feeding supply, fueling demand

While Hall said electric vehicles “are still far outpaced by demand and registrations for gas-powered vehicles in Virginia,” advocates say the Advanced Clean Cars Program could increase adoption by increasing the commonwealth’s supply of electric vehicles.

If adopted, the ZEV standard would require roughly 8 percent of all vehicles manufacturers sold statewide to be electric by 2025.

The demand is there, say these advocates. One survey conducted by pro-electric vehicle group Generation180 found that while over half of Virginians surveyed were likely to consider an electric vehicle for their next car, inventory was 44 to 54 percent lower in Virginia cities than in comparable Maryland cities, with certain popular models seven to 10 times more available in the latter. Many respondents reported having to travel to Maryland to buy an electric car.

Availability isn’t the only barrier to electric vehicle adoption, however. While costs have dropped in recent years  experts believe they’ll reach price parity with gas-powered vehicles by 2025, or even sooner  the technology remains more expensive than traditional models.

bill put forward by Reid aims to offset that price premium through a two-tiered rebate program that would offer buyers or lessees of electric vehicles rebates of up to $2,500 or $4,500, depending on their income. Dealers would also receive a $50 incentive payment for each car they sold.

The program design hews closely to that put forward by the working group that estimated it would cost $43 million, although Reid said his bill proposes a more scaled-down version. That group, which included not only environmental organizations but auto dealers and state agencies, determined such a program was “feasible and similar to programs that currently operate in other states.”

“We wanted to make it so it’s as simple as possible for the salesperson to use, because we wanted to remove all the barriers or impediments that are either perceived or actual,” said Reid.

Another major barrier, infrastructure, will also be on lawmakers’ agenda in a bill from Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, that would require an analysis of electric vehicle charging infrastructure as part of the state’s energy plan. Currently, as the Automobile Dealers Association pointed out in their December letter, Virginia only has about 2,000 charging stations, a fraction of those found in California. Many of those are clustered in the state’s more populous regions and become more sparse in rural areas.

“It’s going to be very difficult for you to find a great charging station in Bath County,” admitted Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, during the December electric vehicle town hall.

A study of readiness conducted by the Virginia Department of Transportation and recently released to lawmakers “found that we in Virginia, like pretty much everywhere else in the country, are not ready for mass deployment of vehicles,” said Boysko.

“We have a long way to go to get to full capacity and this will get us on track for that,” she said.

The cost conundrum

The biggest question mark in the electric vehicle debate remains cost.

Charging stations offer opportunity for businesses, and a special docket to consider electric vehicles established by the State Corporation Commission this summer revealed an appetite for growth. Electric vehicle proponents also emphasize the job creation potential the market poses, with factories like the Volvo plant in Dublin planning to begin manufacturing new models, while businesses have begun to tout the lifetime savings costs they expect from electrification.

But other efforts, like rebate programs, and the desire to ensure that infrastructure is developed equitably, including in rural areas that might not attract much competition, are likely to require deep pockets  complicated by the hit on the global economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As far as the $43 million working group estimate for the rebate program, Reid said that “in today’s environment, I don’t think that money is available.”

“It may be we have to put the program in place this year and then find funding,” he said. “We’re not sure right now how much money is going to come back to the state budget.”

The DMME working group in its final report put forward a range of funding options, including transportation-related taxes and fees, congestion pricing and the highway usage fee.

One potential revenue source is the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a cap-and-invest market similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that would require fuel suppliers to purchase emissions allowances in an auction and then redistribute the proceeds to participating states for reinvestment in clean transportation.

Virginia, however, has hesitated to join TCI. While Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island formally committed to the program this December, Virginia and seven other states merely pledged their ongoing collaboration in efforts to develop the new initiative. At the time, Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, said Northam hadn’t ruled out the possibility of full commitment in the future. Clean energy advocates expect the program to come before the General Assembly in 2022, but any such proposal is likely to face fierce resistance from some Republicans and industry groups.

Related bills

Related proposals before the General Assembly this session include:

  • House Bill 2118 from Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, which would create the Electric Vehicle Grant Program to issue competitive grants to school boards to replace diesel school buses with electric ones by 2031, put in place charging infrastructure for the buses and set up educational and workforce development programs to encourage industry growth. The program would be funded with a tax on dyed diesel fuel, a type of diesel identified for nonroad use.
  • House Joint Resolution 542 from Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, to request the Department of Rail and Public Transportation to study transit equity and modernization. Most plans for reducing transportation emissions rely on a dual strategy of converting gas-powered vehicles to electric ones while also reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled through more robust public transit infrastructure.
Northam unveils proposal to begin legal marijuana sales in 2023
Virginia Mercury, Ned OliverJanuary 13, 2021 (Medium)
(Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Retail sales of recreational marijuana would begin in Virginia on Jan. 1, 2023, under legislation authored by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, which in addition to ending the state’s prohibition on the drug would expunge many past criminal convictions and create a state fund to help people arrested for marijuana crimes start legal businesses.

Northam came out in favor of legalization late last year and his bill, first made public Wednesday, represents a starting point for what’s expected to be a long debate during the legislative session that begins this week.

“Marijuana prohibition has historically been based in discrimination and the impact of criminalization laws have disproportionately harmed minorities in low income communities as a result,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who is carrying the legislation in the Senate with Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria. “We’re focused on undoing those harms.”

Timeline

When Northam announced his support for legalization, he said he did not plan to rush the process, citing the experience of regulators in other states. True to his word, his legislation lays out a two-year timetable in which officials would begin drafting regulations and issuing licenses to marijuana businesses before retail sales would begin in 2023.

“We’ve done the research and we can do this the right way,” he said during his State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night.

Until then, most of the state’s current laws governing the drug would remain in place and the drug, while currently decriminalized, would remain illegal and subject to existing criminal and civil penalties.

The decision is likely to disappoint criminal justice advocates, who have argued for an immediate end to the state’s prohibition, enforcement of which has disproportionately targeted Black Virginians.

Likewise, operators of Virginia’s tightly-controlled medical cannabis dispensaries, have been lobbying for permission to begin recreational sales this year to serve as a stop gap while regulators establish rules and begin a broader licensing process.

However, legislative analysts who studied the issue last year recommended against that approach, arguing early access to the retail market would give medical producers an unfair competitive advantage and, in any case, would be unlikely to meet anticipated demand for the drug.

Taxes and oversight

Northam proposes handing regulatory control of the new marketplace to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, which would be renamed the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control Authority.

But unlike the state’s monopoly on the sales of liquor, in which sales are restricted to state-run retail stores, the authority’s role in the marijuana industry would be limited to developing and enforcing regulations and licensing producers, processers and retailers.

Northam proposed a 21 percent tax rate on retail sales, which, combined with the existing state sales tax and optional three-percent local tax would bring the total potential levy to nearly 30 percent, which the state’s Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission (JLARC) estimates would bring in $37 million in new tax revenue the first-year sales are legalized, rising to an estimated $183 million in year five.

JLARC found 30 percent is on the high-end of tax rates assessed in other legal states, comparable to Colorado and Illinois but still less than the 36 percent and 47 percent charged in California and Washington, respectively.

The revenue would be divided four ways, with 40 percent going to pre-K programs for low-income families, 30 percent going to social equity programs, 25 percent going to substance abuse prevention and treatment programs and five percent going to public health programs.

The decision to charge the state’s alcohol control authority with overseeing the new marketplace was not a given. JLARC said the upside of such an approach is faster implementation of new regulations with a lower operating costs. The commission said the downside is that creating a new, dedicated state agency would have more flexibility and a greater focus on equity programs lawmakers have emphasized as they pursue legalization.

The liquor authority would be advised by a new Cannabis Control Advisory Board, which would be tasked with making recommendations as regulations are developed governing cultivation, security, quality testing, advertising and other restrictions and rules.

Equity

Northam proposes an array of equity programs aimed at making sure Black residents, who bore the brunt of criminal enforcement under prohibition but have struggled to gain a foothold in other states’ legal marketplaces, have an opportunity to profit from the drug’s legalization in Virginia.

“It’s important that people who have been damaged by the war on marijuana not be denied opportunity,” said Ebbin, the bill’s co-patron in the Senate.

The legislation would grant social equity licenses for businesses that are owned by people who were arrested or convicted of a marijuana offense or are the family member of someone who was, people who have lived for at least three years in a place the state determines was disproportionately policed for marijuana crimes or is determined to be economically depressed. Alternatively, businesses that aren’t owned by people who meet that criteria could still be eligible if they employ at least 10 full time employees who do.

The proposed qualifications were recommended by JLARC as an alternative to race-based criteria, which the commission said is generally only allowed by courts in instances where there is already a documented history of race-based exclusion.

Social equity licensees would be given a six-month head start to apply for licenses to operate marijuana businesses as well as technical support from the state and, potentially, lower application fees.

The legislation also proposes offering state-financed, low-interest business loans to help applicants start their businesses — an effort to address the difficulty of raising capital in an industry where most banks are still either unable or unwilling to issue loans.

The loan program would be financed by a new Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, to which Northam proposes dedicating 30 percent of new tax revenue from marijuana sales.

The new fund would be controlled by a new board, the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board, which would more broadly be tasked with financing initiatives aimed at “making whole again families and communities historically and disproportionately targeted and affected by drug enforcement.” The proposed legislation specifically references scholarships, grants and contributions to the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, which oversees legal representation of poor criminal defendants.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which endorsed the legislation Wednesday morning, called the provisions essential.

“I think Virginia has an opportunity to make sure that African Americans — Blacks in the commonwealth — get their fair share,” said the caucus’ leader, Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico. “That is our focus.”

(Getty Images)

Expungement and resentencing

Northam proposes a multi-pronged approach to addressing old marijuana convictions.

All past misdemeanor marijuana charges and convictions would be automatically expunged by July 1, 2022, sealing the vast majority of criminal records related to the drugs. The legislation includes the caveat that all fines, court fees and restitution related to the charges must paid before they are cleared.

For more serious convictions, such as possession of large amounts or distribution, the legislation would allow a person to individually petition a judge to have their records expunged in light of the drug’s legalization.

And people currently serving jail or prison sentences related to marijuana charges would be entitled to have their sentences reconsidered by a judge as long as they were not convicted of possessing more than five pounds of the drug, convicted of a third felony offense or convicted of distributing the drug to minors.

“We’re going to have a multi-billion industry that we’re about to hopefully pass, so we want the folks in our communities that have been harmed and penalized by that not to still be in prison for something that’s hopefully going to be legal,” said Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth.

Possession limits, home grows and driving

Northam proposes limiting adults to possessing no more than one ounce of the drug, which is in line with the limits set in most other states, according to JLARC.

His legislation would also allow home cultivation, but only four plants per household, and only two of the plants could be “mature.” The legislation would require the plants not be visible from the street and “reasonable precautions” to prevent underaged access. Northam also proposes requiring each plant be tagged with the owner’s name, driver’s license number and a notation that it’s being grown for personal use.

With the drug’s legalization, criminal penalties would remain for unlicensed distribution, albeit with significantly reduced penalties.

Possessing more than an ounce but less than five pounds would result in a $25 civil fine, the current penalty for people caught with small amounts marijuana under decriminalization legislation that last passed last year.

People caught with five pounds or more would face felony charges punishable by between one and five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

The punishment for a first-time charge of possession with intent to distribute would drop to a class 2 misdemeanor.

People under 21 caught with the drug would face a $250 civil penalty. Juveniles would face a maximum $200 fine. However, the legislation would allow judges to offer alternative sentencing programs that include drug treatment or education.

The legislation aims to address driving while under the influence of marijuana — which, unlike alcohol, can’t be reliably proved with a breath or blood test — by allowing a judge to infer guilt if there is an open container of marijuana in the passenger area and the accused appeared through conduct, speech and appearance to be intoxicated. (Last year lawmakers banned searches based on a police officer detecting the odor of marijuana).

Local control, referendums

Northam proposes giving local governments the authority to authorize or ban retail marijuana sales within their borders and set hours of operation.

But the legislation would also give local residents a say, allowing citizens to force a referendum that, if adopted, would open the jurisdiction to marijuana sales and, if rejected, end legal sales even if the municipality’s board has already approved them.

Local governments and residents would have less authority when it comes to manufacturing, processing and other non-public-facing marijuana businesses, though the siting of such businesses would be subject to local zoning rules.

Proposed business locations would be approved as part of the state’s licensing process, which include an opportunity for local residents and government officials to weigh in.

The legislation proposes some limits on where marijuana businesses can locate, specifically refencing locations that would disrupt churches, schools, hospitals and playgrounds. In residential neighborhoods, the licensing board could also consider arguments that a business would adversely affect real estate values.

The legislation also sets density limits, preventing any marijuana business from operating within 1,000 feet of another. And more broadly, regulators would be tasked with determining an appropriate number of licenses for a given area and respond if the number of licenses in a given area becomes “detrimental to the interest, morals, safety, or welfare of the public.”

The outside world intrudes on Virginia politics — again
Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jeff SchapiroJanuary 13, 2021 (Short)

Defining issues for Democrats are those on which there are deep divisions within the majority party. That will become clear as the General Assembly lurches toward adjournment in late February, relying on a parliamentary sleight of hand to bypass one by Republicans that threatened to squeeze the session to 30 days from the usual 46.

These issues include taxes, marijuana, paid sick leave, police reform, civil and voting rights, campaign finance, gambling and reopening public schools during the pandemic. Differences on policy are exacerbated by differences in personality, especially House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, both of Fairfax.

Virginians got a taste of both during the interminable special session that, over nearly 85 days, pivoted from repairs to the COVID-19-wracked budget and post-George Floyd police reform to an all-you-can-eat legislative buffet that restyled the General Assembly as a mini-Congress.

The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Expungement

House Democrats say one of their top priorities is a hold over from the special session that hit a dead end in the Senate — legislation allowing the automatic expungement of many criminal convictions.

Supporters say lingering criminal records too often pose barriers to employment and housing, making it hard for people to rebuild their lives. The Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center says they’ve worked with clients who have been turned down for apartments by landlords who cited past charges for which the applicant was never convicted.

“This bill will give people a clean slate,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who proposed the legislation. “If someone has turned their life around, they deserve a clean record.”

As proposed last year, Herring’s legislation would direct the state court system to automatically seal records for about 170 misdemeanor and felony offenses eight years after they complete their sentences, provided they don’t reoffend. Charges that don’t result in convictions would be automatically expunged soon after the case concludes.

Advocates call Virginia’s expungement laws some of the most restrictive in the country, noting the state is one of just seven that does not allow any criminal convictions to be expunged. Currently, defendants can only have charges for which they were not convicted removed from their records, and only if they file a petition with their local court and convince a judge to sign off.

The State Crime Commission endorsed the measure last year, but it was never seriously debated in the Senate, where Democrats said they opposed automating the process — an approach adopted by just a handful of states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan.

“If there’s anything the last 30 decades of criminal justice reform has taught us, it’s that automatic anything doesn’t work — or can be extremely dangerous,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. He also questioned how the Crime Commission, on which he sits, and House Democrats arrived at their list of 170 offenses that would be eligible. “There does not appear to be any policy rationale.”

Surovell says he plans to put forward legislation that expands expungement to a range of criminal convictions — likely Class 5 felonies or below with exceptions for crimes like DUI — but maintains requirements for individuals to initiate the process by petitioning the court in which they were convicted.

He acknowledged that the time and expense associated with individual petitions would pose a burden to some defendants, but argued his approach would open many more charges to potential expungement while providing a case-by-case review.

“The big picture is that the Senate supports a remedy that would give relief to tens of thousands more people in many more potential situations, but would require a petition and going in front of a judge,” he said.

Gov. Ralph Northam hasn’t weighed in on either approach but included $13 million in his proposed budget to cover the expected cost of establishing the programs.

Republican lawmakers have shown little appetite for either approach, though GOP lawmakers in the Senate have in the past supported far narrower bills limited to infractions for alcohol and drug possession by young people.

Marijuana

Last year, lawmakers decriminalized marijuana, reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug to a $25 civil fine. But at the time, most Democratic leaders said they weren’t ready to begin seriously discussing legalizing recreational use of the drug.

That changed this year as the state completed two major studies of what a legal marketplace might look like in Virginia and Northam endorsed the concept, saying he’ll propose legislation that would establish a retail marketplace over the next two years.

Proponents have emphasized racial justice, noting Black Virginians have for decades born the brunt of enforcement, and Northam said he plans to put forward a bill that would seal records of past convictions and give minority communities harmed by past enforcement a leg up in the marketplace.

While lawmakers in the House say they believe they have the votes to pass the legislation, leaders in the Senate were more circumspect, giving it 50-50 odds. One Democratic senator, Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, put out a statement chastising his colleagues for making marijuana a focus of the legislative session in the midst of a pandemic that has shuttered schools.

The Northam-backed legislation has not yet been filed and the details are expected to generate significant debate. In the Senate, lawmakers are expected to establish a subcommittee dedicated exclusively to the topic.

Mandatory minimums

Heading into the special session, the State Crime Commission endorsed legislation that would eliminate all mandatory minimum sentences from the state code — a sweeping proposal that supporters say would restore sentencing discretion to judges and juries and end what one group of prosecutors called “irrationally lengthy prison sentences that fuel mass incarceration.”

Most of the mandatory minimum sentences on the books in Virginia address driving while intoxicated, narcotics, child pornography and weapon violations, according to the research undertaken by the Crime Commission, though researchers said the offenses make up a relatively small proportion of convictions in any given year, accounting for just 3 percent of convictions in the past five years.

The Crime Commission said studies about the effectiveness of mandatory minimums, most of which were adopted as part of tough-on-crime legislation that swept statehouses in the ‘80s and ‘90s, are inconclusive.

Republicans have assailed the proposals as “by far the most egregious ‘soft on crime’ proposal yet in the Democrats’ attempts to make life easier on criminals.”

The death penalty

Lawmakers in Virginia have debated the death penalty off and on for years, but even under Democratic control a repeal failed to make it to a full vote before the House or Senate, dying in committee or never getting a hearing.

Lawmakers agreed to revisit the issue, which remains timely with two people on death row, this year. As in years past, a repeal has strong support from faith leaders around the state.

Legislation patroned by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, in the House and Surovell in the Senate would change the sentences of the two people currently awaiting execution to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole.

“The commonwealth shouldn’t be in the business of killing its citizens, plain and simple, and it is time we meet the moment and end this despicable practice once and for all,” Jones said in a statement.

Correctional officers stand at the entrance to the Greensville Correctional Center on Nov. 10, 2009, near Jarratt, Virginia. Greensville is home to the state’s execution chamber. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Private prisons

Virginia has just one private prison — Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Brunswick County — which opened in the late ‘90s as part of a pilot program.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, is pushing to bring its operation back under state control. At Ebbin’s request, last year lawmakers asked the Department of Corrections to study the cost of assuming state control over the facility.

Prison officials reported last month that it would likely cost the state $9.3 million more per year to operate the facility than it is currently paying GEO Group, largely because the state pays its correctional officers and other prison staff more than the private contractor.

With the finding in hand, Ebbin has filed legislation that would prohibit the state from contracting out prison management, effectively ending the relationship with GEO.

“Putting cost cutting above all else can be antithetical to the pursuit of justice,” Ebbin said, saying staff at the prison are overworked and underpaid. “At the end of the day, studies show that Virginia is sacrificing basic standards of care at the expense of humane incarceration.”

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Felony penalties for drug possession

Some lawmakers are also pursuing legislation they hope will eventually lead the state to reduce penalties for drug possession beyond marijuana, arguing the criminal records they create impose burdens that only make recovery from addiction more difficult.

Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, filed a bill that asks the Crime Commission to study the effectiveness and alternatives to the state’s criminal rules governing possession of drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine.

“Nothing about the way we’re approaching drug convictions (is) rooted in medical science,” Hudson said during a forum this week hosted by Justice Forward. “If you’ve got a felony conviction on your record, there’s a whole suite of career options that are now closed to you.”

Facial recognition, body camera footage and probation violations

Democratic lawmakers have also filed bills that would:

  • Require local governments to sign off on the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement. (HB 2031, authored by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg)
  • Begin tracking data about how bail and other forms of pre-trial supervision and detention are used. (HB 1945, authored by Del. Clint Jenkins, D-Chesapeake.)
  • Impose limits on when and for how long people can be put back in prison for technical probation violations. (HB 2038, authored by Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth)
  • Require police departments to release video or audio recordings that capture officers discharging firearms, stun guns or chemical weapons. (HB 1941, authored by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke.)

Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers, who have largely opposed reforms enacted to date by Democrats, have filed legislation that would roll back limits on police stops advocates say lead to racial profiling. They’ve also brought back legislation filed last year aimed at increasing transparency of the state’s parole board and strengthening victim notification requirements.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, right, listens as House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, back to camera, objects to a procedural resolution on conducting the session as the Virginia House of Delegates conducts their special session inside the Siegel Center in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

Democratic leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates have stripped three Republicans of some committee assignments after they signed a letter casting doubt on the results of the presidential election and urging Vice President Mike Pence to block the lopsided Democratic victory in Virginia.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, stripped Dels. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge and Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, of one committee assignment each. They were not booted from all their committee seats.

LaRock was booted from the Transportation Committee, Cole was removed from the Privileges and Elections Committee and Campbell lost his spot on the Courts of Justice Committee.

“By seeking to disenfranchise millions of Virginians and undercut faith in our democratic institutions, Delegate Dave LaRock, Delegate Mark Cole and Delegate Ronnie Campbell showed exceedingly poor judgment and conducted themselves in a manner unbecoming of their office,” said Kunal Atit, a spokesman for Filler-Corn. “Their attempt to cast doubt on our elections process in order to impede the peaceful transfer of power between one president and another is an affront to our democracy and violates the public trust.”

Prior to last week’s rally in D.C. that culminated in a deadly mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, LaRock spearheaded a letter addressed to Pence that asked him to block some Electoral College votes for President-elect Joe Biden.

“Should you, as Vice President, announce a winner based on a tally of unconstitutionally and fraudulently elected Presidential Electors, it would create a rent in the fabric of the nation,” the delegates said in the letter, which was on LaRock’s letterhead and co-signed by Cole and Campbell.

LaRock in particular is facing mounting calls to resign after he offered a defense of last week’s event and used an outdated racial term by saying his detractors should “focus on the needs of the colored community.”

LaRock appears undaunted, telling constituents in a recent message he isn’t going anywhere.

“I have stayed loyal to the president even now as RINOs are jumping ship and that won’t end,” he said. “Democrat Trump haters want to humiliate our president and they want to intimidate me and make me unelectable.”

Sunday hunting bill stopped in its tracks
Virginia Mercury, Sarah Vogelsong January 13, 2021 (Short)
A squirrel sits outside Virginia’s General Assembly. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A bill to allow Sunday hunting on public lands was dealt a swift death on the first day of the 2021 session by the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.

The proposal, which was carried by Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, failed 16-6, with both Democratic and Republican committee members split on the issue.

This is the second year Edmunds has championed the expansion of Sunday hunting in Virginia to public as well as private lands. He had argued that not allowing hunters to use public lands often paid for using the proceeds from hunting license sales is unfair.

The issue has long been a bone of contention in Virginia, which is one of only five states to maintain such a ban on its books. The General Assembly lifted the prohibition on Sunday hunting on private lands in 2014.

While committee chair Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, said about 50 people had turned out to provide virtual testimony on the bill, only one speaker in favor of the measure and one against were allowed to testify due to time constraints.

Via text, Edmunds said he was “disappointed that hunters contribute the most to the purchase of many public lands but are the only user groups not allowed to use it.”

“I think it is very hypocritical,” he said. “I really believe that many of those who voted against it voted against hunting more than they voted against Sunday hunting.”

Edmunds said he plans to reintroduce the bill in 2022.

Terry McAuliffe is running for governor again. Can anyone beat him?
Virginia Mercury, Graham Moomaw January 9, 2020 (Medium)
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe gives a
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe gives a “thumbs up” as he headed to a press conference to announce he’s running for governor again. McAuliffe was joined by several backers, including Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, center, and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, right. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

He’s baaaaack.

On Wednesday, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe officially announced he’s running for a second term, launching a rare comeback bid pundits and political strategists say will be difficult, but not impossible, for other gubernatorial hopefuls to stop.

“Certainly he comes into the race in a very formidable position,” said veteran political commentator Bob Holsworth. “He’s a popular former governor. He has tons of resources. And he loves to campaign. At the same time, the open question in this campaign is whether he is the person for the moment.”

Long an open secret in state politics, McAuliffe made his 2021 campaign official in an appearance at a Richmond elementary school, where he was joined by a group of Black leaders. Among them were Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who will serve as co-chairs of McAuliffe’s campaign.

It appeared to be a nod to the complicated racial and gender dynamics of the 2021 Democratic field, which already includes Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, both of whom have the potential to be the first woman elected governor in Virginia and the first Black woman elected governor of any state. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the only Black person currently elected to statewide office, is also seeking the Democratic nomination.

Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said he thinks it’s accurate to call McAuliffe the presumptive frontrunner in the Democratic primary, partly because McAuliffe’s been “shaping the behavior” of the other candidates for months. But the other candidates getting in early, Kidd said, may sharpen the question of whether McAuliffe, last elected in 2013, is the right candidate for 2021.

“This is the era of George Floyd, the era of Black Lives Matter, the era of people of color being able to express their voice and sort of take their place in society,” Kidd said. “I think he gets that’s sort of conceptually his big challenge.”

As a former Democratic National Committee chairman and close ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe has a national profile and prodigious fundraising abilities.

Running as a quasi-incumbent who already did the job for four years, McAuliffe brings a level of statewide name recognition the other candidates lack, a challenge they’ll have to overcome by introducing themselves to rank-and-file Democrats who aren’t close followers of the state legislature.

“Terry is almost universally known by Democratic voters,” said a Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the race. “His base is in Northern Virginia. It’s going to be extremely tough, especially in a COVID world, to campaign and try to break through.”

Current Gov. Ralph Northam, who, with the help of a Democratic-led General Assembly, has signed reams of progressive legislation that would’ve been unthinkable in the McAuliffe era when Republicans held the legislature, cannot run for re-election due to Virginia’s term limits.

At his announcement, McAuliffe highlighted education as a top policy priority, promising the “biggest, boldest investment in education in Virginia history.” Specifically, he said he’s planning to put an extra $2 billion a year into education to fund teacher pay raises, address segregation in schools and end racial achievement gaps, expand preschool availability for at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, provide every student with internet access and improve workforce development programs.

“The one thing we cannot afford to do is to keep Black and Brown and rural children from being able to access what they need to get a quality education,” McAuliffe said. “We need to make sure that every child is prepared for 21st-century jobs. Virginians are desperately ready for this.”

McAuliffe said he’s running on an agenda of “thinking big and being bold” as he announced his campaign at a Richmond elementary school. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)
McAuliffe said he’s running on an agenda of “thinking big and being bold” as he announced his campaign at a Richmond elementary school. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Both Democrats and Republicans have recently worked to increase education funding and raise teacher pay, but many of those efforts were put on hold earlier this year amid pandemic-related uncertainty over the health of the state budget. McAuliffe’s campaign explained that he’d consider new revenue from legalized marijuana sales and casinos to boost education funding.

McAuliffe also touted his efforts to bring businesses into the state and restore the voting rights of people convicted of felonies, a move he characterized as striking a blow against racist laws from Virginia’s past.

Asked what he’d say to Democratic voters who wish he had stayed out of the race and used his considerable resources to allow Virginia to make history by electing a Black woman as governor, McAuliffe said he’s “running on a big agenda of thinking big and being bold.”

He then deferred to Lucas, who said McAuliffe has “a track record of being responsive to Black and Brown communities.”

“We’re standing with him based on what he has done and what we know he can do,” Lucas said. “This has nothing to do with race.”

Some see it differently.

“If the narrative becomes Terry is just standing in the way of a qualified Black woman and that’s it, he could really be toast,” the Democratic strategist said. “And no amount of Louise Lucas quotes are going to pull his ass out of the fire on that one.”

On the Republican side, the contest is off to a chaotic start, with Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, threatening to run as an independent after the party chose to pick its nominee via convention instead of a more open primary. Former House Speaker Kirk Cox, the only other Republican currently in the field, has said Chase will “fade from relevance” if she follows through with her plan. But after more than a decade of losses in statewide races, even a small split in the Republican vote could wreck the GOP’s chances of winning back the Executive Mansion.

Chase has recently been encouraging her supporters to contact Republican officials to urge them to reconsider the convention decision.

McClellan, Carroll Foy and Fairfax all took slightly different tacks in welcoming McAuliffe to the race.

In a public strategy memo, the McClellan campaign argued that, for all the “bluster” of his announcement, McAuliffe underperformed in his first run for governor in 2009, when he lost a Democratic primary to Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who went on to lose to former GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell. In beating former GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to win his first term in 2013, the campaign said, McAuliffe “barely won” a contest with low turnout compared to 1989, when former Gov. Doug Wilder made history by becoming America’s first elected Black governor.

Carroll Foy drew a contrast with her own personal story as someone who struggled growing up in the impoverished city of Petersburg, calling McAuliffe “emblematic of the status quo that has simply left too many people behind.”

Fairfax, who is still trying to move past the sexual assault allegations leveled against him in 2019, didn’t opine on McAuliffe directly, saying he’s proud of what Democrats have accomplished in the past three years, after McAuliffe’s term ended.

Holsworth said it’s fair to call McAuliffe the favorite, but “far too early to anoint him as the nominee given the quality of his challengers.”

“In conventional times you would think that McAuliffe would have the kind of advantage that people would not be able to overcome,” he said. “But this is an unconventional race for the Democrats in an enormously sort of challenging time for the state and the country.”

Retired judges pick eight citizen members for Virginia redistricting commission
Virginia Mercury, raham Moomaw January 6, 2021 (Short)
The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A panel of retired judges on Wednesday picked the eight Virginia citizens who will serve on the state’s new redistricting commission, finalizing the group that will handle the important task of redrawing the state’s political maps when new U.S. Census data arrives.

The judges spent hours trying to solve the puzzle of winnowing more than 60 finalists down to eight people who, by law, were supposed to represent Virginia’s geographic, racial and gender diversity.

“We’ve got to check a number of boxes here,” said retired Judge Pamela Baskervill, who chaired the five-judge panel assembled to choose the citizen members.

More than 1,200 people applied for the eight seats late last year. But the judges could only pick from four lists of 16 finalists submitted by four legislative leaders in the General Assembly.

The judges picked six men and two women to fill the eight citizen seats on the 16-member commission.

Four of the chosen members are White (three non-Hispanic and one Hispanic), two are Black, one is Asian American and one is multi-racial.

Three of the members are from Northern Virginia and two are from the Richmond area. Southwest Virginia, Southside and Hampton Roads will each have one citizen representative on the commission.

The group includes four self-identified Democrats and four who identified as Republicans.

The selected citizen members are:

Nominees of Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth:

  • James Abrenio, 37, of Fairfax, a trial lawyer.
  • Sean S. Kumar, 41, of Alexandria, a strategic advisor and lawyer.

Nominees of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax:

  • Brandon Christopher Hutchins, 39, of Virginia Beach, a military veteran and health care professional.
  • Greta J. Harris, 60, of Richmond, president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition.

Nominees of Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City:

  • Marvin W. Gilliam Jr., 64, of Bristol, a retired coal mining executive.
  • Richard O. Harrell III, 74, of South Boston, a trucking executive.

Nominees of House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah:

  • Jose A. Feliciano Jr., 52, of Fredericksburg, a military veteran and federal agent with the FCC’s public safety bureau.
  • Mackenzie K. Babichenko, 36, of Mechanicsville, an assistant prosecutor in Hanover County.

(Note: Some applicants were nominated as finalists by multiple legislative leaders, but the judges had to pick two from each leader’s list.)

The other eight seats on the commission will be filled by sitting state legislators.

The commission, approved by voters in a ballot referendum last year, will soon get to work preparing to redraw Virginia’s legislative and congressional districts, a process previously handled wholly by the General Assembly. Because of uncertainty surrounding the 2020 Census data, the exact timeline for the commission’s work is unclear. New maps are supposed to be in place in time for House of Delegates elections this November, but Census delays may make it impossible to redraw the districts in time.

Whenever the state receives solid data on population shifts, the commission’s decisions could impact the partisan tilt of the statehouse and the congressional delegation for the next decade.

Critics of the commission proposal warned that it lacked adequate provisions to ensure a diverse group of people would be at the table for the next redistricting process. But diversity seemed to be a top priority for the judges, with their discussion centering more on whether they were achieving the right balance rather than the backgrounds and qualifications of specific applicants.

Comparing notes on which candidates stood out to them, the judges initially narrowed the finalists down to a group of 19. They then realized their shortlist lacked any Hispanic applicants and didn’t include anyone from the Eastern Shore/Northern Neck region. The panel made a point of adding at least one Hispanic applicant (Feliciano) after retired retired Judge Larry B. Kirksey said he was troubled by the lack of Hispanic representation. But several judges said it was nearly impossible to create a perfectly representative commission given their limited options for just eight slots.

“’We can only work with the list of folks that came to us from the members of the General Assembly,” said retired Judge Joanne F. Alper. “We didn’t have access to the whole 1,200.”

Alper said she felt it was important to include at least one member from the Southside and Southwest regions, even though their shortlist only included White men from those areas.

“You need somebody at least that has some knowledge of that region,” she said.

Some progressives had raised alarms that the pool of applicants was disproportionately White and wealthy, pointing to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.

The application process was open to everyone willing to fill out the form and provide three reference letters, but the judges also grappled with strict, General Assembly-imposed limitations on who was eligible to serve.

To prevent cronyism, the legislature passed rules barring political aides, lobbyists, partisan operatives and family members of elected officials from serving on the commission. But those rules also forced the judges to reluctantly strike one applicant whose wife previously worked on Capitol Hill.

Several judges said they were impressed by both the quantity and quality of the applicants interested in serving on the commission.

“I’m just amazed by the diversity, the energy, the brilliance,” said Kirksey.  “Not just brightness. There is brilliance on this list.”

A hallway in the Capitol crowded with citizen and corporate lobbyists during the legislature’s 2019 session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Suppose your livelihood depends on persuading policymakers to draft legislation and adopt regulations to favor an interest or a client. It’s called lobbying, defined in dictionaries as organized efforts to influence legislators. It’s been around since the inception of the Republic, and it has historically required proximity and access to people in power. The very name derives from advocates who would crowd the corridors of power — lobbies — for some fleeting face time with policymakers.

Now, imagine that the whole in-person proximity part vanishes.

That’s exactly what has happened to Virginia’s corps of lobbyists accustomed to their midwinter encampments on Capitol Square thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the General Assembly’s decision to largely meet virtually in the 2021 session that convenes in less than a month.

While seasoned veteran lobbyists who’ve plied the hallways, galleries, committee rooms and offices for decades have negotiated the shift to varying degrees, rookies with few connections and resources and particularly ordinary Virginians with pressing, poignant causes are at a serious disadvantage.

Gone, at least for the coming socially distanced session, are the days when a lobbyist could saunter by a lawmaker’s Capitol Square office and pop in for an intricately rehearsed impromptu pitch for or against an obscure clause in a bill that could mean millions to a client’s bottom line. In its place is a numbing profusion of texts, emails, livestreams, videoconferences and phone calls unfathomable a year ago.

The challenge it creates to effective advocacy on behalf of clients, say several longtime lobbyists interviewed over the past week, is getting noticed among the hundreds of emails that pack the inboxes of legislative leaders and senior administration officials in an hour when the legislative session is in full throttle. That’s where longtime personal relationships — the ability to shoot a text to a committee chairman’s private cell phone alerting him or her to an urgent, just-emailed document and setting up a conference call with industry experts the next day — pays decisive dividends. Information and access are the currency of the realm, and those who have it start every inning on third base, nobody out and the clean-up batter stepping to the plate.

Unlike most of the economy, the pandemic has left the lobbying industry largely unscathed. Solo practitioners and those connected to prestigious firms say business is good. Turns out that monied interests will pay what it takes, particularly in challenging times, to secure effective advocacy for their priorities, according to the lobbyists, none of whom could discuss client work or finances for the record.

For causes that rely heavily on compelling face-to-face interaction between real, everyday folks and their delegates and senators, the pandemic has created daunting obstacles. These are groups in need of help from their government but unable to pay platoons of elite lobbyists to shepherd their causes through the legislative gauntlet.

I’ve seen the real-people approach applied by a number of movements. They include textile and furniture workers whose jobs disappeared when their Southside factories shut down and headed overseas thanks to global trade deals in the 1990s. I saw it in anguished parents of autistic children who pleaded for years to have their children’s conditions covered by insurance before they finally succeeded. I have seen members of gun rights groups noisily assert encroachments on their Second Amendment rights even as they freely prowled the grounds with war weapons slung from their shoulders. I’ve seen it from mothers and fathers who lost children to a heavily armed madman on April 16, 2007, at Virginia Tech, weeping as they begged legislators for commonsense restrictions on the commonwealth’s permissive firearms laws.

Sometimes, it is enormously effective when hundreds of ordinary people meet their legislators and speak firsthand of personal grief and hardship. Sometimes, it’s counterproductive. I have seen lawmakers’ reactions range from teary eyes and sympathetic hugs to clenched fists and sharp words.

No group finds more sympathetic ears at the General Assembly when its officers and members turn out for their in-person lobby day than those which represent military veterans — the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars among the better known. Together, they present a united front every year behind a handful of proposals under the auspices of an umbrella organization known as the Joint Leadership Council of Veterans Service Organizations. They’re very effective.

In November, Virginia voters resoundingly approved an amendment to the state Constitution that affords disabled veterans a break on personal property taxes they pay on an automobile. That measure had to win passage in two consecutive legislative sessions separated by a House election to make it onto last month’s ballot. A similar constitutional amendment a few years earlier gave disabled vets a real estate tax waiver. And last year, the General Assembly passed a new law that allows additional time for the ballots of active-duty troops posted overseas to arrive after an election. Income tax breaks for disabled vets remains a priority carried over from last year.

How do they advocate for their current priorities?

“It’s very different trying to Zoom (videoconference) with individual delegates and senators. We have to do it but it’s not satisfactory,” said Dan Boyer, an unpaid lobbyist representing the VFW on the JLC, who drives four hours each way from his home near Galax to Capitol Square four or five times most sessions. Probably not so many in 2021.

“When we would have our lobby day, I’d stop in and meet with maybe 16 people — delegates, senators or their aides — and they had seen those VFW and American Legion hats everywhere up and down the halls all day, and it made a difference,” said Boyer, an Air Force veteran who served three tours in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Lobbyists are, by necessity, keeping their wish lists lean, focusing on clients’ priorities because of the limitations of remote lobbying but also because of new bill pre-filing deadlines and a change that will likely make the already short 2021 session even briefer.

Sessions in even-number years run for 60 days, longer than odd-number sessions because new biennial budgets have to be built from scratch in years evenly divisible by two. Odd-number years, without the heavy lifting of budget writing, traditionally run for 46 days.

The state Constitution, however, prescribes only 30 days for the odd-year sessions while giving the House and Senate the option of adding 15 days on a two-thirds vote of each chamber. Since the last overhaul of the state Constitution in the early 1970s, the vote to extend was a foregone formality. For 2021, however, Republican leaders of both chambers say GOP members will oppose the 15-day extension, leaving the House and Senate well short of their two-thirds majorities and possibly setting up an unprecedented final adjournment before Valentine’s Day.

No matter the metric, 2021 will be a wildly different winter session as lobbyists do what they can from a distance and long for a post-COVID world and whatever that new normal will be. They know that a pandemic hangover is going to last a while, but that this too shall pass — maybe like a kidney stone, but it will pass.

Terry McAuliffe wants to be governor again. Women: Not so fast.
Politico, Sabrina Rodriguez and Maya KingDecember 8, 2020 (Medium)

“I understand the desire for someone to come back and have a sequel, second chapter,” said one Virginia Democrat. “But times change, and new leaders evolve.”

Terry McAuliffe has long signaled he wants his old job back as Virginia governor. But a slew of political groups focused on women and Black voters have a message before he jumps in the race: It’s not your time.

McAuliffe’s 2021 run — he is planning to announce on Wednesday, POLITICO confirmed — has rankled a number of groups across the commonwealth and country. They argue he shouldn’t be trying to reclaim the post he vacated three years ago when there are already two Black female candidates in the field— state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy.

“We’ve never elected a Black woman governor in this country’s history,” said Glynda Carr, CEO of the Higher Heights PAC, which supports Black women running for political office.

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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