Next week is the formal day set aside for thanksgiving. For many that means food, and I love the foods associated with the holiday of Thanksgiving. It is a time of generosity as many people and groups make sure that everyone has something to eat at least on that day. For others the meaning of Thanksgiving may be the sales that come with unique bargains that are offered on “Black Friday” although I do not know how those sales will be accommodated during a pandemic. Certainly the crowds pressed against the front doors of stores about to open would not be safe nor would the rush to the best bargains be a good idea.
Some believe that the first Thanksgiving occurred on December 4, 1619 when Captain John Woodlief and 35 Englishmen landed at what is now known as Berkeley Plantation. They immediately fell to their knees as the charter under which they were sailing required giving thanks to the good Lord for their safe passage from what had been a rough voyage and for the thousands of acres of pristine lands on which they were going to settle. There was no mention of the indigenous people who had occupied the land for as many as 15,000 years before their arrival. More than a year later at Plymouth Settlement a festival occurred that included settlers and indigenous people in what is more often referred as the first Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving as a holiday on the fourth Thursday of November dates to a proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863. Even in the midst of a civil war, Lincoln reminded the nation of “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies” under the “providence of Almighty God.” Lincoln found that “a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity” had not “arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship” and “the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase in freedom…the gracious gifts of the Most High God.”
The spirit of Lincoln should be with us as we celebrate Thanksgiving this year. Our institutions of government have been tested over the last nearly four years as seldom before. The voters have largely dispersed those who showed little respect for our values and traditions. It will soon be less painful to read the morning newspaper or to listen to the evening news. There will be fewer times of looking at social media with disbelief at the actions of our national leaders. We will have lively debates as we always do in our democratic republic, but those debates can lead to greater freedoms from inequalities, hunger and health threats.
The pandemic is testing our patience as few other events in our lives have, but we can remind ourselves and others that face masks, social distancing, and no crowds will help to preserve our health as well as that of others. And we can remind ourselves and others that the blessings we ultimately enjoy are not simply of our own making but are as Lincoln reminded us “the gracious gifts of the Most High God”–by whatever name we may call that spirit!
Enjoy your Thanksgiving next week!
Tears welled up in my eyes last Saturday evening as the President-elect Joe Biden and the Vice President-elect Kamala Harris addressed their supporters and the nation for the first time after having been declared the winners of the presidential election. The words they said, the message they delivered, and the tone they set struck the chords that have been so vitally important to me and to many others throughout our lifetimes. If we seemed ravenous in listening to their words, it was because we have not heard them for too long and were hungering for inspirational and positive leadership.
The President-elect made his approach to governance clear: “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify–who doesn’t see red and blue states, but a United States, and who will work with all my heart to win the confidence of the whole people.” Starting with that kind of attitude will go a long way toward his success in being a unifier.
My interest in politics goes back to my teenage years and has been influenced by the great speeches I have heard, not simply for the words that were said but because of the hope they offered and the vision for greatness for our country they inspired. I stood in the foot-deep snow at the United States Capitol on January 20, 1961 and heard a leader I revered, the new President John F. Kennedy, say in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Another inspirational moment came for me on my birthday, November 3, 2008, when Jane and I stood for hours in a crowd estimated at 80,000 people at the Prince William County Fairgrounds waiting for candidate Barack Obama who arrived at 10:30 p.m. for the final appearance of his campaign to be president. In his usual inspiring way he told us, “I come away with an unyielding belief that if we only had a government as responsible as all of you, as compassionate as the American people, that there is no obstacle that we can’t overcome. There is no destiny that we cannot fulfill.”
In an echo of President Kennedy’s words, former President Obama this fall challenged the country with his words, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” And just as President-elect Biden reminded us of the unity of America, Barack Obama at the Democratic Convention in 2004 in a speech that brought him to the attention of political leaders had reminded us that, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America–there’s the United States of America.”
While these quotes are words, they reflect attitudes and beliefs that can stir us to positive action to realize the potential for an honest and decent America that is open and inclusive and where the American dream can become a reality for all.
This column is being written before election day with a schedule for publication the day after the polls close. It may be a bit optimistic to suppose that the results of the many election day contests will be known by the next day, but I surely hope for my own sanity and those I know that the results will be known right away. The eagerness of voters to see these elections over with is evident by the historically high number of persons casting their votes early. In some localities the number of votes cast early eclipsed the total number of votes cast in that place four years ago. The event reported on social media where a voter asked those standing in line how long they had been waiting to vote and got the response “four years!” may not have actually happened, but it certainly captured the sentiment of many including myself that the last nearly four years have been a disaster for our country and its institutions. Pandemic aside we have much to do to restore faith in our institutions and confidence in each other and our communities.
In Virginia there were elections only for federal offices this year as state offices are filled in “off year” elections. Next year voters will choose a new governor–as Virginia governors cannot succeed themselves–lieutenant governor, attorney general and all members of the House of Delegates. While the results for federal offices are just coming in with some congressional races downstate reflecting the wide division of opinions reflected nationwide, there are those who are already lining up for the statewide positions that will be on the ballot next year. If you thought that some space would be freed up on your e-mail accounts with the elections this year being over, think again. Many people have already announced for election next year with more no doubt coming soon from whom you will be receiving pleas for support and of course for funding to make their election possible.
While we understandably might want a respite from politics, the sudden shift in attention to the next election cycle is good news. It shows our faith in the system and our understanding of the need for healing and active work to repair the immense damage of the last nearly four years. The peaceful evolution of power has been a hallmark of the American system of government from its beginning, and the several attempts to disrupt that process have in the long run been over-ridden. I know the threats that have been made about the transition of power this year, but I am counting on an overwhelming vote result that will erase any doubts about the true winners. Over time with leaders who represent true American values we can deal with the needs of American citizens with honesty, decency, compassion, and equality. The people will have spoken, and the results are in. It is time to put the horrors of the recent past behind us and build a stronger country because we have had a glimpse of the alternative!
When the then underdog Mark Warner, whose only experience in political life had been to chair the Democratic Party of Virginia and manage the successful campaign of Doug Wilder for governor, had the courage in 1996 to take on Senior Senator John Warner in his re-election bid, Mark Warner’s bumper sticker read, “Mark, not John.” While the phrase may have helped voters differentiate the two candidates who are not related, it was not enough to cause voters to change their senator. Republican Senator John Warner went on to serve a total of 30 years in the United States Senate, the second-longest of any Virginian. Mark Warner went on to be elected governor of Virginia in 2001 and ran in 2008 to succeed Senator John Warner when he retired.
Too often overlooked in times of political rancor is the admiration and respect that develops among persons of different political parties even though they may differ on policy issues. Such was the case with the two senators Warner. As governor, Mark Warner regularly consulted with then-Senator John Warner to the advantage of the Virginia economy particularly as it related to the military presence in Virginia. When Democrat Mark Warner had a strong challenge to his Senate seat in 2014, retired Republican Senator John Warner endorsed him for re-election over his challenger who had been chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The two men have tremendous political experience between them and a moderate, pragmatic approach to resolving issues. It is no surprise that both have endorsed passage of Amendment #1 on the ballot this year to end political gerrymandering. Former Senator John Warner said, “the passage of Amendment 1 is essential to achieving this goal and to further strengthen our state’s political institutions. This referendum was drafted by a bipartisan group of volunteers from all walks of life and every corner of Virginia in order to give average citizens a stronger voice in the important process of redistricting.”
Senator Mark Warner told the Richmond Times Dispatch that he has already voted for the amendment. He said, “I believe in nonpartisan redistricting, and it’s an improvement over our current broken redistricting system. Voters should choose their elected leaders, not the other way around.” Virginia’s other United States Senator, Tim Kaine, who also served as Lieutenant Governor and Governor of Virginia supports Amendment #1 as does Congressman Don Beyer who was also Lieutenant Governor
While there is opposition to the amendment by those who see a loss of partisan political power if the amendment passes, there is broad support among others including Common Cause, the Brennan Center for Justice, Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Campaign Legal Center, AARP Virginia, ACLU, Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters, Virginia League of Conservation Voters, and political scientists in Virginia’s colleges and universities. The editorial boards of the Washington Post and the Richmond Times Dispatch and all major newspapers in Virginia have endorsed it.
While there have been suggestions that a better amendment could be written, no one in the nearly four decades that I have worked on this issue has come forward with specific language that has the broad support of this one. I urge your vote for its passage. Send questions or comments to me at [email protected]
With more than two months remaining in 2020, I can already say that it has been an amazing year in Virginia’s history. When the events of 2020 in the Commonwealth are reviewed in the future by historians in the context of the state’s history, the conclusion is going to be that Virginia underwent a consequential and transformative period equal to or superior to any other period of its history. For a state that is so rich with history I realize that might seem like an overstatement, but I believe my conclusion is fully supported by the facts.
I am not talking about surviving the COVID-19 pandemic or enduring what is likely to be called the absolute worst presidency in the history of the country, as important as both these situations are. I am talking about what went on with the Virginia General Assembly and its future impact on the state.
The year opened with a regular General Assembly session with many new faces from the 2019 elections. Never has there been a House of Delegates that was younger with more racial and sexual diversity. A Jewish woman took over the reins of power in the House of Delegates. More women and Blacks became committee chairs than ever before. And there was a determination to deal with unresolved issues that had plagued the state for decades and in some instances for centuries. The Governor was clearly on board to lead such a session.
Gun safety measures that had been talked about for years even as gun violence and mass murders had increased were enacted and signed by the Governor. Some had suggested for years that terrible things would happen if all gun transfers required a universal background check, but that system is now in place as a result of a bill I introduced that passed and was signed by the Governor. The more than 22,000 gun advocates most of whom were armed that assembled around the Capitol did not deter the Assembly from doing what it knew had to be done.
Non-discrimination legislation passed with the Virginia Values Act being one of the most comprehensive in the nation. Voting laws were changed to make voting easier and more accessible as voters are now learning as they cast their votes in this election. Many Jim Crow-era laws were repealed.
The special session called to deal with budgetary and other issues related to the pandemic built on the successes of the regular session with a pivot to criminal justice and policing reform. Civilian review boards have been empowered to investigate police-related complaints. Chokeholds were essentially eliminated as were rubber bullets and military-type equipment in local policing. Traffic stops for minor offenses–a big part of racial profiling–are now banned. Jury sentencing has been eliminated in what some are describing the most significant criminal justice reform. And there is even more that I will detail in future reviews.
Benjamin Franklin was asked at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention what kind of government we have. He responded, “A republic, if we can keep it.” In Virginia, we can say that we now have one of the most progressive governments in the country. To keep it, however, will require future vigilance and work. Many of the advances I celebrate here will become the stuff of future political campaigns where bigotry and fear will be used to try to turn the state back.
In a campaign that promises “fair maps” by voting yes for Amendment #1 on the ballot this election cycle and the opposition that promises “fair districts” by voting no, there is little wonder that there would be confusion in the minds of voters. As a strong supporter of Amendment #1, I turned to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit whose mission is to inform people with neutral content about politics, to define objectively what a yes or no vote means on the Virginia ballot question: (ballotpedia.org)
A “yes” vote supports transferring the power to draw the state’s congressional and legislative districts from the state legislature to a redistricting commission composed of state legislators and citizens.
A “no” vote opposes transferring the power to draw the state’s congressional and legislative districts to a redistricting commission, thus keeping the state legislature responsible for redistricting
If you are interested as I am in ending partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts, you will vote “yes.” I am not alone in my belief that this is the best vote. The Amendment is supported by the League of Women Voters, AAUW, ACLU, Common Cause, Princeton University Gerrymandering Project, Brennan Center for Justice, AARP, leading political scientists, historians and law professors in Virginia, and the major newspapers in the state
As Dr. Samuel Wang, a Princeton University professor and director/ founder of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, and his associates wrote in an opinion column in the Virginia Mercury, an online newsletter, ” We are proud to endorse Amendment 1 because never before has the Commonwealth seen such an open and transparent redistricting process. Such citizen involvement will help protect communities that have split up in the past.” (September 16, 2020)
Eight professors from Virginia’s largest and most prominent universities including three from the University of Virginia contributed to an article that appeared in the January 29, 2020, Richmond Times Dispatch stating “As scholars of elections and redistricting, we believe this Amendment represents an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen Virginia’s democracy–one that we cannot afford to miss.”
David Daley, a senior fellow at FairVote and author of Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, wrote in a column in the Washington Post on November 22, 2019, “Politicians usually do a lousy job of regulating themselves. But if this (Amendment #1) moves forward, it would be the strongest set of redistricting reforms to ever emerge from a state legislature in American history.”
Editorial writers at the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star could not have been more direct than when they wrote on September 19, 2020, “Vote ‘Yes’ for Amendment 1, which will keep politicians from choosing their voters.”
The Washington Post has had several editorials in support of Amendment #1 including most recently on September 27, 2020, stating that “If the constitutional amendment is approved by Virginia voters, they would be the likely winners, and baldfaced partisan gerrymandering in Richmond would sustain a mortal blow.” They also suggested that “To imagine that rejecting the amendment, and leaving redistricting in the hands of the legislature, would produce fairer and more balanced maps is to believe in leprechauns and forest sprites.”
If you have not already voted or made your plan to vote, please do so. The process of voting this year could not be easier, and the stakes could not be higher for the state and the nation!
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) conducts program evaluation, policy analysis, and oversight of state agencies on behalf of the Virginia General Assembly as authorized by the Code of Virginia. A highly professional staff of attorneys, social scientists, economists, and researchers conducts rigorous and objective studies on the operation of state government in a totally nonpartisan way guided by the public interest. I am honored to serve as chairman of JLARC with Senator Janet Howell serving as vice-chairman.
The agenda of the meeting of JLARC this week provides an example of the kind of work the Commission staff has been doing for many years. This past Monday the staff presented to the fourteen legislative members of the Commission reports on studies that had been completed this past year and progress reports on on-going studies. Copies of these and previous reports are available at http://jlarc.virginia.gov/.
The Commission systematically reviews agencies of state government and reports on their operations and performance. This week’s meeting included a report on the “Operations and Performance of the Virginia Department of Education” that administers the state’s role in public education. Public education K-12 takes the greatest share of the state’s general fund budget at more than $6.5 billion, nearly 30 percent of state-tax-supported revenue. In total appropriations including state tax and non-general funds, the budget for K-12 education is exceeded only by the cost of Medicaid program services. The report included 17 recommendations and 6 policy options for strengthening the department.
The Commission also received the latest “Update on VITA’s Implementation of a Multi-Supplier Service Model.” The Virginia Information Technology Agency has undergone major changes in recent years from a centralized, single-source, private-sector service provider to a multi-supplier service model. Such a change is challenging for any large organization and especially for a $63 billion state government that provides a wide array of services to the public. Anyone who has experienced “the computer is down” as an explanation of why information cannot be secured or services cannot be provided at a particular time will understand its importance. The good news of the report is that the transfer to the multi-supplier model has been completed and that VITA can shift more of its focus to increasing its services to its user agencies.
The Commission has on-going responsibilities, including monitoring the Virginia Retirement System and reporting on state spending trends. The reports give legislators a pulse of how state government is performing based on good data and outcome measures. The “State Spending: 2020 Update” presented this week provides an overview of the $62.6 billion state budget for FY20. Nearly half of the total appropriations were in three agencies: Department of Medical Assistance Services, Department of Education, and Department of Transportation. Adjusted for growth in population and inflation, the total state budget grew by an average of 3.3% per year during the last decade; the general fund tax-supported budget increased by 2% on the average.
Want to learn more about the details of Virginia government and its operation? Visit the JLARC website listed above and review its archive of reports.
Protesters are asking that we say her name, “Breonna Taylor,” as well we should in reminding ourselves and others as to how unfairly laws can be applied. Breonna was a young Black woman in her mid-20’s who worked as an emergency room technician before she was tragically killed by police in a raid on her apartment for reasons that did not involve her. Louisville, Kentucky police got a “no-knock search warrant” to enter her apartment for they suspected that her boyfriend who was in the apartment with her was dealing in drugs. The no-knock warrant was justified by the police as necessary to keep the suspected dealer from having time to destroy evidence. That’s the police view of events.
From inside the apartment in the dark after midnight on March 13 this year there was the sound of the front door being knocked down, and three plain-clothed men entered the apartment. The boyfriend responded by firing a shot that he maintains was in self-defense and that hit one of the policemen in the leg. Under the legal concept of “castle doctrine” in common law and many state statutes a person can use deadly force to protect oneself from an intruder in their home who could cause bodily injury or death.
The boyfriend said he fired that single shot in self-defense. The police responded to his self-defense by firing 32 times into the apartment in self-defense against his self-defense. The boyfriend was not hit, but Breonna Taylor who was an innocent unarmed bystander was killed by the six shots that hit her. No one has been charged with her murder! Any wonder why criminal justice reform advocates have taken to the streets once again?
Clearly the job of maintaining safe communities is a challenging one, but since when is intercepting an alleged drug dealer more important than the life of such an innocent and promising young woman? Since when do we prioritize the arrest of a possible drug dealer over the sanctity of someone’s home with an unannounced, middle of the night raid when the home that is raided is not even that of the person who is the subject of that raid?
I am pleased that the Special Session of the General Assembly now convened is taking on the difficult issues related to public safety and criminal justice reform and the racism that too often has driven policy in the past. While many of these tough issues are still being debated between the House and Senate, I am confident that we will get rid of no-knock warrants in the state, that we will expand police training and civilian oversight of police activity, and that we will reduce the classroom to corrections situations that have caught too many young people of color. We will maintain law and order in our communities without locking up persons of color for minor offenses for unjustified lengths of time.
We need to say the name of Breonna Taylor to remember her murder, but hopefully in the future her death will represent the beginning of real criminal justice reform.
The year 2020 has been filled with major ups and downs, but nowhere has the good news been clearer than in the Virginia legislature. The General Assembly session in the opening months of the year and more recently the Special Session have been transformative in making the Commonwealth a truly progressive state. The voting system has been made easier and more accessible than ever before. Discrimination in all forms has been outlawed and hate crime laws have been strengthened. ERA was ratified. Laws to end gun violence are now on the books. Minimum wage has been increased and predatory lending heavily regulated. Details on criminal justice reform are still being resolved in the Special Session, but major steps in criminal justice and public safety reform will be taken before the session adjourns.
A major step forward in making Virginia a truly progressive state is up to the voters on November 3. Two successive sessions of the General Assembly have passed a Constitutional amendment to rid the state of gerrymandering, but the amendment needs to be approved by voters before becoming part of the Constitution. The amendment is question #1 on the ballot. I hope you will vote yes.
The subtitle of Virginia historian Brent Tarter’s book Gerrymanders: How Redistricting Has Protected Slavery, White Supremacy, and Partisan Minorities in Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 2019) summarizes the unfortunate consequences of a state that has been a victim of extreme gerrymandering throughout its history. Little wonder that Tarter supports the Constitutional amendment as being long overdue.
The language of the amendment provides protection against racial abuses of the past, saying “Every electoral district shall be drawn in accordance with the requirements of federal and state laws that address racial and ethnic fairness, including the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, and judicial decisions interpreting such laws. Districts shall provide, where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”
The director of Princeton University’s Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Dr. Samuel Wang, and colleagues recently wrote that “we are proud to endorse Amendment 1 because never before has the Commonwealth seen such an open and transparent redistricting process. Such citizen involvement will help protect communities that have been split up in the past.”
Political scientists and law professors from Virginia’s leading universities collaborated on an article that appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch earlier this year in which they wrote, “as scholars of elections and redistricting, we believe this amendment represents an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen Virginia’s democracy–one that we cannot afford to miss.”
David Daley, senior fellow with the elections think-tank Fair Vote and an author of books on the subject wrote in the Washington Post that “politicians usually do a lousy job of regulating themselves. But if this (Amendment # 1) moves forward it would be the strongest set of redistricting reforms to ever emerge from a state legislature in American history.
Amendment # 1 is a big deal for democracy in Virginia. It is controversial for those who see themselves as losing power, but it is time to put gerrymandering on the trash heap along with Jim Crow laws and granite monuments. The decision is in the public’s hands. Please vote yes!
The House of Delegates is probably half-way through its virtual Special Session. At least the House has debated all the bills introduced by its members with the exception of the budget that is always last to be considered. Those bills have been sent to the Senate and await their consideration while the House will now begin deliberations on the bills the Senate has passed.
As I have indicated in recent columns this Special Session has been a busy one as Special Sessions go. Even more unusual, it has been conducted for the first time ever in a virtual environment. The House has passed 37 bills, all of which are of considerable importance and consequence. These bills will fund safe and secure alternatives for Virginia voters to return absentee ballots during the upcoming 2020 general election, implement housing protections for Virginia families negatively impacted by COVID-19, ban the use of no-knock warrants and neck restraints, require law enforcement officers to intervene or report when they see wrongdoing from colleagues, and streamline the process for localities to remove, relocate, or alter Confederate statues and other war monuments on public property.
To understand fully what some of the bills, described here in generalities, will do, go to https://lis.virginia.gov to review the specific language and provisions. To make voting easier during the pandemic, HB5103 permits localities to establish ballot drop-off locations, supports pre-paid postage for absentee ballots, and makes it safer and easier to vote absentee. HB5116 requires large employers to provide limited paid quarantine leave for Virginia workers. HB5028 establishes a presumption of worker compensation eligibility for first responders, teachers, and other high-risk essential workers who die or become disabled due to COVID-19. HB5047 combats price gouging for personal protective equipment. There were other COVID-related bills.
Some of the bills passed in the House in the area of police and criminal justice reform are far reaching. HB5013 eliminates qualified immunity for law enforcement officers. HB5043 created a statewide Marcus Alert system for those in a mental health crisis. HB5045 bans sexual relations between officers and arrestees. HB5058 eliminates certain pretextual police stops. HB5049 demilitarizes police departments by prohibiting the acquisition and use of certain weapons by police departments. HB5090 expands disclosure of law enforcement criminal incidence information files for closed or cold cases under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. HB5148 increases earned sentence credits for incarcerated persons. HB5099 prohibits the use of no-knock warrants. HB5146 reforms state law related to expungement of police and court records. HB5069 bans the use of neck restraints by law enforcement. HB5098 expands the definition of hate crimes to include false 911 calls. HB5109 standardizes and enhances training by criminal justice academies and establishes required in-service training standards for law enforcement officers.
These are some of the bills that have passed the House at half-time. All have been subject to compromises of the legislative process and require a careful review of the current text to understand their implications. They are still subject to the scrutiny of the State Senate, possible conference committee action, and signature of the Governor.
This is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.
The most important election of my lifetime is coming up on November 3, and I am not even on the ballot! It is likely the most important election in your lifetime as well. Yet, if past practices hold true, we will in the United States have one of the lowest voter participation rates in the world. We simply cannot have people deciding to stay home when the future of our basic form of government may be at stake. (No, I am not overstating the seriousness of what we are facing this election day!)
There are no good excuses for not voting. As an editorial last week in the Washington Post stated, “Virginia has gone from laggard to leader in making it easy to vote.” You can vote on Election Day November 3 at your usual polling place following the rules of the pandemic of wearing a face mask and keeping social distance. Alternatively, you can vote early at designated locations and times, or you can cast an absentee ballot with no excuse needed by postage-paid mail or dropped in designated ballot drop boxes. All this begins on September 18. Details are available at https://www.elections. virginia.gov/casting-a-ballot.
Historically Virginia has been a laggard in making it easy and convenient to vote. In fact, most voting laws in the past had the intention of making it difficult for most and impossible for some to vote. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, white supremacists who took control of the government passed laws with the publicly announced purpose of keeping Black people from voting. Some poor whites met the same fate. Virginia had the lowest rate of voter registration and participation in the country and the world with these laws that were part of the Jim Crow movement.
The first challenge in voting in Virginia in the past was getting yourself registered, if you could find the voter registrar who was part of the governing machine and not readily accessible. Registration was by a blank sheet process whereby you were required to supply on a blank sheet seven specific pieces of information exactly in the order they were required in the state constitution. Stories abound about college-educated Black or progressive persons who could not pass the literacy test to vote because of the ways the requirements were manipulated.
Once registered to vote in the Virginia of the past you were required to pay a poll tax to cast your ballot. The $1.50 was a problem for some, but the greater problem was remembering and meeting the requirement of paying the tax at least three years in a row six months before the election. Only the party faithful received a reminder.
See why I say there is no excuse for not voting this year?! It could not be easier. Make sure that you, your friends and neighbors are registered, in person or on-line, by the deadline of October 13. Make a plan to vote that you will keep: vote early in-person or by absentee ballot or on election day. No excuses!
Today, August 26, is Women’s Equality Day commemorating the 1920 adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which prohibits the federal and state governments from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex. August 26, 1920–just 100 years ago–was the day when Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the proclamation that the required number of 36 states had ratified the amendment.
From the 1776 idea that “all men are created equal” to allowing women to vote was a long time coming with the real push for women’s suffrage coming about fifty years before it happened. The first women’s rights convention in the history of the United States was held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, but it took many marches, petitions, and protests outside the White House, imprisonments and hunger strikes before the amendment passed Congress and was ratified just as the country emerged from another pandemic. The dedication of the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial at the location of the former Occoquan Workhouse in Northern Virginia where 120 women protesters were imprisoned was to have been dedicated this month but has been delayed with the pandemic. (https://suffragistmemorial.org/)
Virginia turned down an opportunity to be part of ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment by the General Assembly voting against it on February 12, 1920 but did get around to ratifying it on February 21, 1952. The Virginia Association Opposed to Woman’s Suffrage actively worked against the amendment using a familiar argument–“Woman Suffrage: The Vanguard of Socialism.” A 1910 broadside of the organization now in the collection of the Virginia State Library used the argument that “If you hold your marriage, your family life, your home, your religion, as sacred, dear and inviolate, to be preserved for yourself, and for your children, for all time, then work with all your might against Socialism’s vanguard–Woman’s Suffrage.” In another publication by the same organization the argument was made that “Women cannot have the franchise without going into politics, and the political woman will be a menace to society, to the home and to the state.”
Virginia was late also in ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment whose provisions include a guarantee that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Congress approved the amendment in 1972 with a deadline for ratification by 1979, later extended to 1982. Numerous attempts by me and others to get Virginia to ratify the ERA failed until the outcome of the elections in 2019 resulted in enough new members elected to make Virginia the 38th and last state needed to make ratification a part of the Constitution, but the issue of the deadline remains to be resolved.
Virginia has been too slow in responding to issues of human rights in the past, but I look forward to reporting to you in coming weeks on the progress being made in erasing racial inequalities in the Special Session of the General Assembly now underway.
While serving as vice president of the United States from 1797 to 1801, Thomas Jefferson wrote down rules of parliamentary procedure as remembered from his days studying parliamentary rules while a student at William and Mary and from his experiences as serving as president of the United States Senate. Over the years “Jefferson’s Manual” became the standard by which legislative bodies, including the United States House of Representatives and the Virginia General Assembly, turned to for guidance on parliamentary procedure. Even today Jefferson’s Manual is considered along with Roberts Rules of Order in resolving parliamentary issues in the Virginia and many other legislatures.
Even with Jefferson’s wisdom and his knowledge of legislative practices throughout history there can be no expectation that he could have anticipated the challenges of making laws and passing budgets amidst the double whammy of a pandemic and an economic depression. The 2020 session of the General Assembly ended in early March just as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic was being realized. The reconvened session for the House of Delegates was held in a tent on Capitol hill with plenty of space for distancing and a breeze that took care of air circulation. The Senate met in the spacious lobby of the Science Museum of Virginia that had adequate space for distancing.
A Special Session of the General Assembly was called by the Governor and met on Tuesday of this week. It was deemed essential to make significant adjustments to the budget for the next two years based on declining revenues and the urgency of revising criminal justice practices that are racist. The Senate is back at the Science Museum, and the House recognizing that a tent would not be practical in hot weather met instead on the basketball court of Virginia Commonwealth University.
The first order of business of the Assembly was to pass rules beyond those embodied in Jefferson’s Manual to accommodate legislating with the limitations of the pandemic. Although the legislature in the past had allowed limited attendance of official government meeting by telephone, a quorum was required to be physically present. The Senate rules allowed limited voting by proxy, but that applied only to committees that were actually meeting. New rules will allow committees to meet virtually and to take votes of members visibly present on the virtual system employed. Legislation introduced in the special session, and there will be many bills related to police and criminal justice reform, will be heard in virtual meetings of committees over the next several weeks and reported to full houses of the legislature for consideration early in September.
The process will allow the business of government to go forward even if Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol cannot accommodate distancing required during a pandemic. It will modernize the rules of Jefferson’s Manual to recognize that technology enables the legislative process to go forward with all citizens being able to view the deliberations even if legislators are not at the same place. The bills that are being considered will also move Virginia beyond inequities of the past.
Communications experts advise that a message needs to short and punchy to convey its intended meaning in a short period of time. Short and sweet can lead however to confusion, mixed meaning and unintended consequences.
Virginians have realized the fallout from simple, bumper-strip-sized messages in the past. “End parole” as a campaign slogan helped former Governor George Allen overcome a 20-point polling difference to be elected governor. For some people the slogan meant less crime and safer streets, but it also filled Virginia’s prisons to over-flowing shifting huge sums of money from other programs to the Department of Corrections. More people were incarcerated and for longer lengths of time, but the crime rate stayed essentially the same. The campaign slogan “End the Car Tax” got Jim Gilmore elected governor, but the resulting policy costs Virginia schools nearly a billion dollars every year even until today.
I am not particularly good at campaign slogans, but I am fearful that the current “Defund the Police” slogan in response to the real problems in policing throughout the country may inhibit progress towards reform. The number of people who want to literally take all funding from the police is small, but the use of a simplistic phrase to describe the reform movement may turn off many moderates and completely scare away conservatives. There has to be a better way to describe the desired outcomes that reflects the complexities of the problem.
Policing desperately needs reform at all levels of government. The misuse of police power and tactics by the federal government in Portland is frightening, and the Congress must take steps to reign in the administration politicizing the use of police powers. At the state level Virginia needs to increase–not defund–its funding of state police to ensure that its pay structure will attract the best trained and most professional persons to its ranks. It needs to be able to fill its open slots to reduce overtime and stress on its current force.
At the same time the Virginia General Assembly needs in its special session this month to enact the reforms proposed by the Legislative Black Caucus including eliminating the use of choke holds, using body cameras, and enhancing training.
The same reforms need to be applied to police at the county, city and town levels including sheriff departments in Virginia. The responsibilities that have befallen the police in the area of mental health need to be assumed more by personnel in the departments responsible for and skilled in this area of concern.
The public demands and legislators will ensure that the public is safe. At the same time we must demand and put into existence a system free of discrimination and inappropriate use of force. That means we need to redefine our expectations of policing and reimagine the role of public safety officers in our society. We must be willing to spend dollars appropriately to accomplish those objectives. It is over-simplifying a complex issue to suggest that we can “defund the police.”