VCC Magazine Spring 2020

V irginia C apitol C onnections , S pring 2020 6 Other Republicans support increased use of mail-in voting. Former GOP national chair Michael Steele, also a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, said in a recent Washington Times opinion column that the current crisis requires expanded use of vote-by-mail. Utah, one of the nation’s most Republican jurisdictions, and Hawaii, one of the most Democratic ones, are two of the five states that rely entirely on mail-in ballots. Oregon, the pioneer in mail-in ballot procedures, has conducted every presidential election since 2000 via mail-in ballots, registering consistently higher turnouts than the national average. Virginia should join them. Public opinion polls demonstrate that most voters prefer not to put at risk their health—and the health of their families—through in-person voting. Surveys show that roughly three-quarters of Americans (including more than half of the respondents who identify as Republicans), want to give all voters the option of no-excuse- required mail-in ballots during the November election. Given inconsistent and insufficient direction from Washington, Virginia lawmakers would be unwise to wait for a national mail-in- ballot plan, as desirable as that course of action may be. After all, the Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated that partisan political divisions in the national government remain intense even during a once-in-a- century global health crisis. In other words, only Virginia can decide whether the Commonwealth will have a safe and legitimate voting process regardless of public health conditions come November. Virginia should be preparing right now for the possibility of all-mail-in ballots come November. Stephen J. Farnsworth is professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, where he directs the Center for Leadership and Media Studies. He is co-author of “Late Night with Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency,” recently published by Routledge. Virginia needs an all-mail-in-ballot plan from page 5 Virginia stands on the verge of important electoral reform. In November, Virginians will be asked to vote on the following ballot question for a Constitutional Amendment that will radically transform the redistricting process. Should the Constitution of Virginia be amended to establish a redistricting commission, consisting of eight members of the General Assembly and eight citizens of the Commonwealth, that is responsible for drawing the congressional and state legislative districts that will be subsequently voted on, but not changed by, the General Assembly and enacted without the Governor's involvement? A vote of “yes” will transfer power from the hands of elected officials to a hybrid commission comprised of citizens as well as members of the General Assembly. There is no question that this is a tremendous step towards improving the quality of elections in the Commonwealth. The members of the General Assembly passed the commission bill by measures of 83-15 in the House and 40-0 in the Senate. The proposed amendment is testament to our elected officials’ sincere interest in putting an end to partisan gerrymandering and removing the conflict of interest that exists when legislators control the process by which their districts are drawn. Of course, any plans created by the redistricting commission will be subject to approval by those same legislators. Nonetheless, our elected officials will still be limited to approving or disapproving a proposed plan in its entirety—no amendments. So, this is, indeed, a fantastic cause for celebration and a reason absolutely to vote “yes” on the ballot in November. It is a tremendous step towards better elections and better democracy in Virginia. But, we need one more step… The commission will still be limited to creating single-member districts with winner take all elections. As a result, while the redistricting process will shed any appearance of gerrymandering, fact is, elections are not likely to improve without changing the nature of elections. In short, Virginia needs to get rid of that winner-take all electoral system. Mountains of scholarly analysis and tremendous work by organizations such as demonstrate that this method of elections is antiquated and serves only to decrease electoral competition and voter turnout. In preparing this piece, I undertook a quick analysis of General Assembly elections from 2001-2019. From 2001 through 2017, there were four elections to the 40-seat State Senate and 9 elections to the House of Delegates. Across the 160 senate contests, 66 races were uncontested. In the 900 House contests, 443 were uncontested. Put differently, 41% of Virginians had no reason to vote in Senate elections and 49% could have stayed home in elections to the House of Delegates. The results were Two Cheers for Electoral Reform in Virginia By Mark Rush foregone conclusions. Across that time period, turnout across all state legislative elections in Virginia averaged 47.61%. State Senate elections averaged 44.46% and the House of Delegates averaged an abysmal 37.89%. Despite the low turnout, these elections were blowouts. The average House district winner received 78.3% of the vote and the average Senate winner had 75.1%. In general, then, there has not been much reason for voters to go to the polls. General Assembly elections are uncontested blowouts. No one voter’s vote would make a difference. What can be done? The Commonwealth could convert to multimember districts. In fact, the General Assembly map could be redrawn into 20 districts represented by two senators and five delegates. On Election Day, voters could simply rank the candidates in the order that they prefer. Such a plan would be a tremendous boon to democracy in Virginia. For starters, it would minimize the number of counties and cities that were divided by district lines. As well, it would remove the need for any House district to be divided between Senate districts or vice versa. Perhaps most important, it would give Virginia voters a chance to vote in a competitive election with numerous choices that would not be constrained by having to vote for just one winner. They would be choosing two senators or five delegates. Critics suggest that voters would find such a system confusing. Nonsense. In fact, Governor Northam just signed into law two bills that will now enable local electoral boards, the general registrar, and city council members to use ranked choice voting (HB 1103) and establishes ranked choice voting for county board of supervisors elections in counties operating under the county manager plan of government (HB 506). It’s the 21st century in Virginia. The Commonwealth has the chance to make a tremendous reform to its elections with a new redistricting process. Now is the time to finish that laudable work and used ranked choice voting and multimember districts for General Assembly elections. Two cheers for the redistricting commission! A third cheer for statewide electoral reform (when it comes…) Mark Rush, Stanley D. and Nikki Waxberg Professor of Politics and Law, and Director of International Education at Washington and Lee University, writes and teaches extensively on voting rights and elections around the world, constitutional issues, and religion. His current research addresses the intersection of law, science, and religion, academic integrity, and statistical analysis of baseball. V V