Legislative issues fueled partisan ill will

By Stephen Nielson, Allison Landry and Whitney Spicer
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – An ominous “MLK Day plot.” A proposed overhaul of the Electoral College system. Voter ID legislation.

Those are issues that fueled partisanship at the Virginia Capitol this year and turned the bad blood between Republicans and Democrats into one of the most talked-about topics of the General Assembly’s session.

According to a political science professor from Virginia Commonwealth University, John Aughenbaugh, it won’t be the last time for such turmoil.

“Both parties try to go ahead and try to change the system so it will benefit themselves,” Aughenbaugh said. “It just so happens that right now, in the commonwealth of Virginia, that the Republicans control the lieutenant governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature.”

Governor Bob McDonnell signing the budget bill. Photo courtesy Gov.  McDonnell’s office.
Governor Bob McDonnell signing the budget bill. Photo courtesy Gov. McDonnell’s office.

Aughenbaugh said the question is how Democrats will respond. “If they act like the political parties at the national level, then there’s going to be payback, and that generally means less work gets done.”

The Republican Party holds a dominant majority in the House of Delegates – 67 of the 100 seats. The GOP holds exactly half of the 40 seats in the Senate but effectively controls that chamber too, because under the Virginia Constitution, tie votes there are broken by the lieutenant governor – currently Bill Bolling, a Republican.

During the legislative session, which ran from Jan. 9 through Feb. 23, Gov. Bob McDonnell often praised Republicans and Democrats for their bipartisanship. But it wasn’t really a bed of roses. The two parties disagreed, argued and threw low punches over several issues.

‘MLK Day Plot’ over redistricting?

Jan. 21 was the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King. It was the day Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term as president. And it was the day Republican senators voted to redraw Senate districts to increase the number of GOP seats. They succeeded because Democratic Sen. Henry Marsh of Richmond was absent: He had gone to Washington for Obama’s inauguration.

Democrats cried foul – some called it the “MLK Day plot.” The tactic caused severe tension between the parties for the remainder of the General Assembly session.

“Redistricting always has been a very ugly, partisan process regardless of the party in control, although the ploy this year is unprecedented,” said Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath County.

Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax went as far as to compare the Republicans’ surprise vote on redistricting to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Senate approved the bill on a 20-19 party-line vote. It would have increased the chances for Republicans to win additional seats in the Senate.

The bill was later killed in the House, where Republican leaders questioned its legality: Based on the 2010 census, Virginia’s district lines were redrawn two years ago. Trying to change them during this legislative session appeared to violate the state Constitution, which says redistricting should be done once a decade.

Although tensions ran high over Republican senators’ attempted coup, there was historical precedent for such a political maneuver: Democrats had tried similar moves not too long ago.

Aughenbaugh noted that Democrats controlled the state legislature and the governor’s office in Virginia from the Reconstruction Era throughout the 1960s. “The Republican Party was basically subservient to the Democratic Party for almost a century.”

He said one of the GOP’s biggest criticisms in the mid-1990s was that Democrats were scheming to redraw district lines to secure more seats in the General Assembly.

“Both parties do this in all the states,” Aughenbaugh said, “Does it thwart democracy? Sure.”

Rigging presidential elections?

Early in the legislative session, Democrats accused the Republican Party of attempting to rig future presidential elections by ending Virginia’s winner-take-all system of casting its presidential electoral votes.

Until 2004, Virginia traditionally voted Republican in presidential elections. But it’s now a purple state, with the popular vote favoring Obama in 2008 and 2012.

The president is not elected by the popular vote, however. Rather, each state casts a certain number of votes in the Electoral College, which in turn selects the president. Virginia has 13 electoral votes. And it awards all of them to whichever presidential candidate wins the state’s popular vote.

A bill introduced by Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Galax, would have drastically changed that. It sought to allocate 11 electors based on the popular winner in each of Virginia’s U.S. House districts and two to the candidate who won the most districts.

“The congressional districts that were established after the 2010 census created a favorable playing field for Republicans,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington.

“In 2012, if the electoral votes had been divided by congressional district, Obama would have gotten four electoral votes and Romney would have gotten nine, even with the popular vote margin that Obama won for the state as a whole.”

Aughenbaugh said that’s because Democrats are concentrated in large urban and suburban area.

“So they tend to have strong majorities in those districts. Republicans have greater majorities in rural areas, and they would win more voting districts,” he said. “So, although President Obama had a strong majority of the popular vote, more of his voters are concentrated in a smaller number of voting districts.”

Carrico’s legislation was killed in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee by an 11-4 vote on Jan. 29.

This wasn’t the first time some politicians wanted to change the Electoral College system. In the past, such changes were advocated by Democrats.

“There were a whole bunch of Democrats after the 2000 election that wanted to completely scrap the Electoral College,” Aughenbaugh said. “Al Gore actually won a majority of all the popular votes cast in the United States, but he lost the Electoral College.”

Farnsworth said Carrico’s bill was defeated in part because some Republicans opposed giving up all of Virginia’s electoral votes in the future. After all, they would benefit from the winner-take-all system the next time a Republican presidential candidate carries Virginia.

Suppressing votes or preventing fraud?

In 2012, Virginia passed a law requiring all voters to show identification at the polls. While the legislation expanded the number of acceptable IDs, it ended the option for people without an ID to sign an affidavit attesting to their identity.

This session, Republicans introduced several bills to tighten Virginia’s voter ID laws. GOP legislators said the current requirements are not strict enough in preventing voter fraud. The General Assembly passed, and McDonnell signed into law, legislation requiring all voters to show an official photo ID, such as a driver’s license, in order to vote.

“Everyone benefits from a voting system that people can rely on, making sure that legitimate citizens are voters and the people who do vote are who they say they are,” Farnsworth said. But he said critics see voter ID laws as an effort to “structure the political systems in ways that advantage the Republicans.”

Democrats and activist groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said the new requirements would disenfranchise many poor and minority voters – people who usually vote Democratic.

“In terms of practical democratic theory in action, [the legislation] would harm more Democratic voters than Republican voters,” Aughenbaugh said. “That’s when you start hearing cries that there is a conspiracy.”

Some Democrats and civil rights activists likened the voter ID law to the poll taxes imposed on African Americans during Jim Crow days – a blatant attempt to suppress certain voters.

The first test of new voting law will be the governor’s election in November.

Next battle: Cuccinelli vs. McAuliffe

The next battleground for Virginia parties will be the gubernatorial race between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe. So far, the election is in the process of establishing its most important issues.

Both candidates have been talking about jobs and the economy, but abortion may be the hot button issue of the election. The first radio ad of the race will be from Women Speak Out Virginia, a political action committee affiliated with the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List. The group is reportedly funding a $50,000 ad buy geared against McAuliffe.

The Susan B. Anthony List has endorsed Cuccinelli for “his stance in favor of protecting the innocent unborn” and pledged $1.5 million toward his campaign. McAuliffe supports abortion rights, saying women “should be able to make their own health-care decisions without interference from Washington or Richmond.”

Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are clearly on opposite sides of the issue and may be drawn into a heated debate on abortion. Depending on the outcome of the election, that debate may carry over to next year’s General Assembly.

Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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