Email #323: “the most important liberty”?

A year ago today, October 26, 2016, the Staunton New Leader asked you: “do you believe it will be an honest and fair election or is the system rigged?”

You said it’s an “ongoing thing to make sure that our election process is viewed as being fair, because voting is probably the most important liberty that we have, because it helps us to protect all of our other freedoms and as a result of that, you’ve got to make sure that it is used in a way that people trust.”

I strongly agree.

When I went to your Open Door meeting last week, Debbie Garret said she would pass on my request that a member of your staff attend the showing of the documentary “GerryRIGGED” at the W&L Commons. Debbie said she was going out of town, so she couldn’t attend herself. About thirty people showed up, but I don’t believe any were from your office. Which is a shame, since the issue is at the heart of what you called our most important liberty.

The Supreme Court is likely to strike down Wisconsin’s partisan districts when it rules on gerrymandering early next year. Sadly, this won’t help elections on November 7th. And even if the Court did rule in time, it wouldn’t help Virginia.

According to the likely new standard for weighing the fairness of district maps, our “efficiency gap” should be 5%. That would reflect the fact that Democrats pack their votes into single districts when they segregate themselves in urban areas like Richmond and Alexandria. But our gap is a whopping 16%. That’s because the voting districts are designed to waste Democratic votes and maximize Republican votes through intentionally crooked divisions.

But even though our efficiency gap is much worse than Wisconsin’s, the Court’s decision still won’t apply here. Our districts disproportionately keep a Republican majority in the state assembly, but they weren’t pushed through by Republicans alone. For reasons that defy both democracy and partisan politics, Democrats voted for our unfair districts too.

If state Democrats had instead voted against our unfair maps, then those maps would meet the definition of a one-party monopoly that defines Wisconsin. Instead Virginia’s maps protect incumbents of both parties. They also keep the Republicans in a near super-majority of 66 seats, well above the slight majority they would have without crooked districts.

So Virginia’s only hope is itself. Fortunately, candidates on both sides of the aisle oppose gerrymandering. Republican Jill Vogel has sponsored multiple bills as a sate senator in attempt to end the practice, and the Republican-led Senate has enough votes to end it right now.

The problem is the House of Delegates where year after year Republicans block bills from ever reaching the floor. According to most projections, House Republicans are likely to lose seats in November, dropping their majority down to 60. That’s a good thing for both parties, because it brings them both closer to voting on a bipartisan anti-gerrymandering bill.

Although my current delegate Ben Cline voted for our gerrymandered map, he is now expressing a willingness to revisit the issue and find a way to support a bill to end gerrymandering by either party. I’ve had a series of productive meetings with Ben, and I believe he is sincere about reform. He says he would like the process to be less political and more transparent. His opponent, independent John Winfrey, is adamantly opposed to gerrymandering and will vote for any bill that ends the unfairness. When John first met with me before deciding to run, I advised him to make gerrymandering his top issue, and he has been an outspoken advocate.

You live in Roanoke, so I’m not sure if your current delegate is Democrat Sam Rasoul or Republican Chris Head. Due to gerrymandering, I expect Head’s challenger, Democrat Djuna Osborne, has little chance of winning. And due to Rasoul’s Democratically packed district, he doesn’t even have a challenger.

Despite all that divides Democrats and Republicans, this is one issue that can bring us together. The Virginia Conservative, a political blog by a member of your congressional district, said back in 2011:

“Although it may be nothing more than a idealistic dream, I really hope that the General Assembly will create non-gerrymandered compact districts based upon regional similarities and concerns.  When you consider political parties, race, or protecting incumbent candidates, you really undermine the whole idea of free and fair elections in the first place.”

Do you disagree? Did you defend Virginia’s gerrymandered districts to the Supreme Court because you sincerely believe districts should be drawn to protect incumbents and inflate the Republican majority? Do you oppose fair districts because they would not help you achieve your personal political agenda?

You said it is important that “our election process is viewed as being fair.” You said we must “make sure that it is used in a way that people trust.” But your ongoing support of Virginia’s gerrymandering contradicts those principles. Has your position changed at all in this past year, or do you still stand by those hypocritical statements you made a year ago today?


Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor at W&L University, comics editor of Shenandoah, and series editor of Bloomsbury Critical Guides in Comics Studies. He has published two novels: School for Tricksters (SMU 2011) and Pretend I’m Not Here (HarperCollins 2002); and six books of scholarship: On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa 2015), Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017), Superhero Thought Experiments (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Iowa 2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Routledge 2020), Creating Comics (with Leigh Ann Beavers, Bloomsbury 2021), and The Comics Form (Bloomsbury forthcoming). His visual work appears in Ilanot Review, North American Review, Aquifer, and other journals.

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