Towards Presidential Dictatorship

Whether your preferred candidate for president ultimately wins the 2020 election or not, the power of the president has grown with each new administration. The president wields considerable powers that are far beyond the limits set forth in the Constitution and unfortunately, most politicians and political activists seem to be okay with this situation so long as their party controls the White House.

Here’s a video that a graduate student at West Virginia University sent me which explains this increasing problem.

Vote No on Amendment 1!

So much of the attention surrounding the 2020 election revolves around the race for president. However, here in Virginia we have a multitude of other contests such as U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, city councils, school boards, and the like. In addition, there will be two amendments to the Virginia Constitution on the ballot.

The first amendment deals with the issue of redistricting. Presently, the General Assembly draws the lines for the legislative districts in the state. The House of Delegates draw the maps for the 100 House of Delegate seats and the Virginia Senate does likewise for their 40 member body. However, given the rules, whichever political party holds a majority of the seats in that chamber more or less has a blank check to draw the lines as they see fit. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that as part of my graduate research at WVU, I found a statistically significant increase in the number of Republican seats gained after the last two redistricting sessions in the House of Delegates as compared to other elections where there was no redistricting. Who controlled the House of Delegates during the last two redistricting sessions? The Republicans. Now if the tables were turned, I’m relatively certain that the Democrats would have done the same. After all, that is the Virginia way. Nevertheless, it doesn’t sound particularly fair, does it? Legislators choosing their voters as compared to the other way around.

In order to learn more about Amendment 1, I reached out to several pro-Amendment 1 people (FairMapsVA, the League of Women Voters, and Delegate Sam Rasoul D-Roanoke) and several anti-Amendment 1 people (Vote No on #1 and Delegate Mark Levine D-Alexandria) to hear their arguments. I’m still waiting to hear back from Del. Rasoul.

Supporters of Amendment 1 claim that if the people pass the legislation in November then Virginia will no longer suffer from partisan gerrymandering. The process will be fairer and some add that it will be free from the control of political parties. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But are these statements true?

To answer that question, it is important to read Amendment 1 rather than let me or anyone else tell you what it says. You can find the text on the Department of Elections website but I will also post it here.

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 and to give the responsibility of drawing districts to the Supreme Court of Virginia if the redistricting commission fails to draw districts or the General Assembly fails to enact districts by certain deadlines?

It doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Including citizens into the process ought to make the process more fair, shouldn’t it? But there are many unanswered questions here. Who are the legislators involved? How are the citizens selected for the commission? Do they need a simple majority of the commission in order to approve the districts? Fortunately, the Department of Elections includes all of these answers if we simply read further.

The eight legislative commissioners are appointed by the political party leadership in the state Senate and the House of Delegates, with an equal number from each house and from each major political party. The eight citizen commissioners are picked by a committee of five retired circuit court judges. Four of the retired judges are selected by party leaders in the Senate and the House from a list compiled by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia. These four judges pick the fifth judge from the same list. This selection committee then chooses citizen commissioners from lists created by party leaders in the Senate and the House.

For starters, we see that according to the amendment, the commission, by law can only include Republicans and Democrats. There will be no independents or third-party legislators or citizens. As for their selection, we see that party leaders get to create the list of citizens who are eligible to serve. That doesn’t sound very good, does it? Rather than a fair, nonpartisan commission, they create a body with the political parties’ fingers all over the selection process. Given what you know about politics, do you think the parties will select good, honest citizens who are fair-minded or instead select party loyalists who are more than happy to advance their party’s wellbeing at the expense of their fellow Virginians? I know which one I think would be far more likely.

Moving on, we find

For a plan to be submitted for the General Assembly’s approval, at least six of the eight citizen commissioners and at least six of the eight legislative commissioners must agree to it. Additionally, for plans for General Assembly districts to be submitted, at least three of the four Senators on the commission have to agree to the Senate districts plan and at least three of the four Delegates on the commission have to agree to the House of Delegates districts plan.

Given that four of the eight citizens are Republicans and the rest are Democrats and four of the eight legislators are Republicans and the remainder are Democrats, it seems highly likely that compromise maps would not occur as each side jockeys for an advantage, carving the largest number of favorable districts for his or her political party. In addition, if one political party thinks that they may get a better deal through the Supreme Court drawn maps, members of one political party could intentionally scuttle negotiations in order to shift full responsibility to an unelected and unaccountable branch of the government.

I have found that Republicans generally favor Amendment 1 while Democrats are opposed to it. This makes sense from a political perspective. After having a free hand to gerrymander Virginia for the last two cycles (except for one instance with the Virginia Senate lines), Republicans are now in the minority. If this amendment doesn’t pass then Republicans will have no say in redistricting. By contrast, now that Democrats hold the majority in the entire General Assembly for the first time since the 1990s they would be eager to draw lines that will help ensure their party’s dominance for the next election cycle.

Make no mistake. The redistricting system we have currently in Virginia is bad. The maps are gerrymandered by legislators in the majority party in order to favor the majority party. But, unfortunately Amendment 1 doesn’t really address or fix any of these problems.

Does Amendment 1 establish a nonpartisan commission to draw the boundary lines? No

Does Amendment 1 prevent legislators from choosing their voters? No

Does Amendment 1 put redistricting in the hands of the people, not the politicians? Given that the politicians get to choose which people are involved, definitely not.

Does Amendment 1 include independent or third party voices in the commission? No

Does Amendment 1 make it easy for one of the two major political parties to stonewall the commission and force judicially-drawn maps? Yes

Is there any language whatsoever in Amendment 1 that forbids gerrymandering, that prevents the commission from carving up Virginia like a Christmas ham, doling out as many safe districts as possible to each of the two major political parties? I can’t find it, can you?

Don’t get me wrong. Virginia needs redistricting reform. And although Amendment 1 might sound nice at first glance, it does not address or correct the major flaws with our current system. The players may have changed but the rotten gerrymandering system remains. Sure, it would be great to have citizens involved, but when you realize that these citizens will be chosen based upon their loyalty to a political party and that legislators and political parties will still have their fingers in the pie, Amendment 1 looks like a bait and switch to confuse Virginia’s voters and trick them into supporting a system which doesn’t actually do what its supporters claim it does.

After examining the arguments both in favor and opposition, for the reasons I list above I strongly encourage you to vote no on Amendment 1. We need to do better. Fortunately, there are better ideas and options out there. One such example is HJ143. Go give it a look and tell me it isn’t better than Amendment 1.

The Schmookler & Huffman Show (Episode LXXXVI)

With less than a month to go before the 2020 Presidential Election, Andy Schmookler and I discuss our predictions for the November contest. We both predict that Biden is favored in the presidential race, easily winning Virginia, but that doesn’t mean that his victory is a sure thing. Although I would have liked to spend more time on the subject, I also spoke about Amendment 1 to the Virginia Constitution and why, if you support free and fair redistricting, you ought to vote no.

If you missed the show live, you can catch it here.

Rep. Cline at First Friday

Earlier today, Representative Ben Cline (VA-6) was the featured speaker at First Friday in Harrisonburg. Republican City Council candidate Dr. Kathleen Kelley also spoke. Although I missed the first 30 seconds or so of Cline’s speech, I recorded the vast majority of it including the question and answer part that followed. The photo of Rep. Cline in the video is not current but rather is from an event in 2016.

Obenshain’s Hypocrisy

Yesterday, Virginia Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26) sent out a highly partisan email lambasting Democrats for supposedly doing away with “free, open and fair elections” in the Commonwealth. For those who subscribe to his messages, it is typical of his current tactics. He rails against Democrats as enemies of freedom by spreading fear and deception while encouraging his readers to support the Republican Party and to “vote Red” regardless of any ideological consideration. As one example of this behavior, in February he made a Facebook post claiming that Virginia Democrats sought to ban “livestock, cars and airplanes”. Although I asked for him to share a bill from the 2020 General Assembly session which actually would outlaw any of these things, there was no response.

The truth is that Mark Obenshain doesn’t care at all about promoting “free, open and fair elections.” How do I know this? Back in 2014, I ran for Harrisonburg City Council. I found it surprising that, in order for my name to be listed on the ballot, I had to collect the signatures of 125 registered voters in the city. Neither my Republican nor Democratic opponents had to do likewise. As unequal ballot access is not the mark of “free, open and fair elections” after the race was over I drafted a bill for the Virginia General Assembly which declared that all candidates, regardless of partisan affiliation, had to jump through the same hoops to be listed on the ballot. I presented the bill to my state senator, Mark Obenshain. However, Obenshain told me that he was strongly opposed to my idea, declaring that only Republicans and Democrats ought to be able to run for office.

To further drive this point home, in the following 2015 General Assembly session, Obenshain sponsored a bill to enact party registration. His bill would require all voters to declare themselves as Republicans, Democrats, or independents. No other choices were allowed. Furthermore, Virginia taxpayers would continue to have to foot the bill for Republican and Democratic primaries, but a good portion of them would no longer be allowed to participate in these state-sponsored contests. As Senator Petersen (D-34) pointed out, “I understand that the purpose of the gentleman’s bill is to restrict participation in the primaries.” Fortunately, Obenshain’s bill was defeated. Senator Obenshain tried his bill again in 2017 and I diligently lobbied as many of the members of the General Assembly as I could against it. This time, the bill died in committee.

Senator Obenshain’s email also decries the governor’s suggestion to move local May elections to November due to concerns over the Coronavirus. There is considerable evidence to suggest that moving local elections to November would help Democratic candidates at the expense of Republicans. A majority of Virginians will almost certainly vote for the Democratic nominee for president, and it is likely that, when voters cast their vote against President Trump, they will also vote against any candidate who shares his partisan affiliation. By contrast, if a Democrat were in the White House, I assume that Obenshain would support moving local elections to November in order to improve the chances of his party’s nominees.

The only aspect of Obenshain’s email that I agree with is his desire for citizens to be required to present some form of identification in order to vote. We have to present ID in order to engage in a multitude of activities such as buying alcohol, flying in a plane, or renting a car. However, does it have to be a photo ID as Obenshain insists? Not necessarily; any ID which can be used to verify a person should be sufficient. And just because an ID has a photo, that doesn’t necessarily make it valid. For example, sometimes students create fake driver’s licenses in order to purchase alcohol underage. Would individuals also use fake IDs in order to vote? It is certainly possible though I would expect the number of people who would do so to be a very small amount.

Although Obenshain may sound sincere in his email, given his actions over the last several years, I don’t believe that he cares at all about “free, fair and open elections” and, in fact, has shown that he is happy to undermine the concept of “free, fair and open elections” should it serve his political interests. He’s willing to support rigging the political game if it benefits himself and the Republican Party but is upset when the Democrats employ similar tactics. This behavior is hypocritical.