Commentary

The one-person, one-vote principle can be a pain, but it’s essential to uphold

May 2, 2022 12:03 am

Voters at the Agricultural Service Center in Buckingham, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

Lord in heaven, I know I swore many years ago that I’d do all in my power to avoid getting pulled into a rabbit hole by Paul Goldman, so please don’t strike me dead for this.

But here goes: Paul is right in suing to force House of Delegates elections this fall.

In a long career as a lawyer and Democratic strategist, Paul has been known to approach members of the press from time to time pitching ideas that sometimes felt off-topic, even a bit crackpot, or at least not something worth pursuing in the near term – and by “near term,” I mean ever.

Paul is a student of history and the constitutions – those of both the United States and Virginia – and his perspectives were, and are, moored in them, both in how they form the superstructure of the national and state governments as well as the rights they safeguard at a level far beyond that of statutory law. Correct though he may have been, his entreaties to correspondents hung on a question of newsworthiness (or at least the media’s arbitrary interpretation of it at the time).

Then, as now, Paul seemed – at least to us ink-stained wretches of the Capitol Square press corps following the daily, incremental intrigues of politics and legislation – to be somewhat unbound by realpolitik considerations.

After Caller ID became a thing, it was not uncommon to let Paul’s calls roll over to voicemail during a busy day. A dialogue with Paul over a pet issue I was disinclined to cover could chew up quite a swatch of time as precious as oxygen to a reporter pushing a copy deadline. I’m not proud of doing it, but it was easier than explaining to an unhappy Associated Press desk editor why my story, which we had promised to newspaper and broadcast newsrooms by a certain time, was now overdue.

But even when Paul came at us with ideas out of left field – occasionally, wide of the foul pole – there was still undeniably an argument rooted in the law, the Constitution, administrative and legislative norms, or all of the aforementioned. I and other writers dismissed Paul at our own peril.

So it seems like a heaping helping of déjà vu that Paul is the author of and plaintiff in a lawsuit that would force a second election in as many years for all 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. It would coincide with this year’s election for all 11 of Virginia’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. And, if the court rules in Goldman’s favor, that would create no small amount of electoral confusion in a state where voters are accustomed to having their federal elections on even-numbered years, such as this, and elections for state offices on odd-numbered years, as last year’s races for delegates’ seats plus governor and two other statewide offices were.

A ruling on Goldman’s federal lawsuit is expected soon.

The Virginia Mercury’s Graham Moomaw unpacked the lawsuit, its genesis and the potential consequences in a laudable work of explanatory journalism on Friday. The “Cliff’s Notes” version of it: Virginia didn’t meet its constitutional obligation to redraw its state legislative districts in time for last year’s House of Delegates election chiefly because of the pandemic. The U.S. Constitution directs the government to conduct a census every 10 years, and the onset of the coronavirus and COVID-19 (now the cause of just shy of 1 million U.S. deaths) derailed the 2020 census just as it got rolling. The contagion sent the world into a tailspin that will take years yet to overcome.

The Virginia Constitution requires that the commonwealth’s congressional and legislative districts be reapportioned the year after each census – essentially, every year that ends in the numeral “1” – to equalize the population of each district. That’s to ensure the constitutional “one-person, one vote” principle, ensuring that each ballot cast carries statistically the same weight, and that is the indispensable premise on which Goldman bases his litigation.

Even in more functional, non-pandemic times, redistricting in Virginia was a frenetic, fast turnaround. To have any hope of meeting the state’s electoral timetables for filling delegates’ seats in that odd-numbered reapportionment year, the granular Census Bureau data required to draft new, equally apportioned district boundaries should be in the state’s hands by April. Last year, that didn’t happen until August.

Not only was that extraordinarily late to have any hope of resetting lines in time for a November election, the new, bipartisan Redistricting Commission that voters added to the state Constitution by passing a referendum on their 2020 ballot turned out to be anything but functional.

The commission, created to eliminate the naked partisanship that dominated reapportionment when the General Assembly alone handled it, dissolved in partisan discord last autumn, utterly failed at its only task, and punted it to the Virginia Supreme Court which finished its work three days after Christmas.

Last November’s elections were held in old districts that had grown hopelessly out of kilter since they were drawn in 2011. Some districts grossly exceeded what should have been an average population of 86,313 based on the 2020 census in Virginia; others, particularly in rural areas, fell woefully short of it. So fast-growing suburban areas got shortchanged on proportional representation while rural districts, where disheartening population drains continue, were disproportionately over-represented.

That’s why Paul is right and, despite the state’s pearl-clutching over holding what would amount to three House of Delegates elections in three consecutive years – last year, this year and 2023 – is a huge pain, the court should rule in his favor.

A constitutional, democratically elected republic – a government of, by and for the people – is sometimes messy. It can be inconvenient and confusing. It demands a level of civic awareness and participatory buy-in from an increasingly jaded and fatigued public. It requires an environment of robust, free speech and debate over ideas, even if it breeds vehement disagreements, but a shared willingness to settle our differences at the ballot box rather than the seditious violence that mercifully failed six days into 2021. But that willingness must rest on the foundational certainty that every vote counts and all votes are equal.

The words we put into our constitutions aren’t recommendations or guidelines to be followed when it’s convenient. They guarantee our liberty and form the guardrails in which we practice self-governance – a belief each generation for nearly 250 years has upheld, shedding blood and sacrificing lives to preserve.

Paul is correct in asserting that people have every right to believe that votes Virginians cast in Scott or Northumberland counties matter just as much as votes cast in Alexandria or Virginia Beach. And if that necessitates a little extra diligence by voters and time and expense by candidates, then – as the people of Ukraine will attest – that’s a miniscule price to pay.

And Paul, if you’re reading this, sorry about the unanswered calls.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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