MY TWO CENTS: Reliance on a Fair Process is not Enough to Protect the Vote

By Chance Lee

The General Assembly has already proved itself a godsend. In just a few short weeks, we’ve seen the passage of the ERA, action on no-excuse absentee voting, and, despite fierce opposition, major movement on commonsense gun reform. More difficult, though, will be the conversation to address partisan gerrymandering. Some of our leaders in Richmond are confident they can craft a fair and durable process while still allowing the legislature to draw district lines. However, a new rulebook will never be enough to uphold free elections if lawmakers retain their grip on mapmaking. And as I wait for the gun control dustup to settle, it occurs to me that the latest specter of right-wing discontent illustrates why a sole focus on process, instead of the people responsible, for its execution is misplaced.

The lone Democratic voice on the Hanover Board of Supervisors, Faye Prichard, spoke with us in December. She described how hundreds of people nearly gave the county fire marshal a coronary by flooding the boardroom to demand the adoption of a gun sanctuary resolution. The measure was a vapid temper tantrum directed against the General Assembly, and it passed 5-1 to the surprise of no one. That the resolution’s intent to “… accept no efforts to change or diminish [gun] rights …” was, on paper, unenforceable hardly mattered.

The lesson to take from Supervisor Prichard’s experience, along with this entire gun debacle, is that process by itself has little consequence. The new legislative majority was less than a month old before our Republican-controlled board decided to flout new proposed rules. More than 100 Virginia counties, cities, and towns similarly laughed off the Assembly’s electoral mandate. These resolutions have galvanized the ugly side of the right, and the powder keg that is the Capitol is a direct result of their contempt for norms.

Process won’t protect itself; that job rests solely with flesh and blood people. Unfortunately for most Virginians, localities across the Commonwealth aren’t interested in safeguarding the proposals of a duly elected majority, and if Facebook posts are any indicator, it’s a possibility our own Sheriff tacitly agrees. What recourse then does process alone have when those charged with the law are skeptical of it? We needn’t look further than the federal level to show us there is none. We’ve watched a venal presidential administration shrug off emoluments violations, break FEC rules, and skip through salacious scandal after scandal. With recent events in Congress, it’s clear any path to accountability ends in a brick wall unless the people in power choose otherwise. My hopes aren’t high knowing Washington’s senators.

Which brings me back to redistricting. A focus on the map-drawing alone mechanism, well-intentioned as it is, ignores the fundamental problem; lawmakers cannot be allowed a choice of voters. The temptation for dishonesty is ever-present. We need an entirely different body responsible for districting, ideally a professional, independent commission with as few political ties as possible. For now, we have a trustworthy Assembly and Governor’s office. The Attorney General, for instance, has enough integrity and simple acumen to recognize there is no legal basis for county gun sanctuaries, but we should understand that characters like Mark Herring are a temporary luxury at best. The next crop of state executives or class of legislators could very well be the sort of Republicans we can’t count on to preserve the processes Democrats put so much faith in. Any redistricting plan that fails to account for that possibility by resting power in the Assembly’s hands should be a non-starter.