Voters stand in line in Florida in 2012. Virginia was finally called for Barack Obama hours after polls closed because voters in Obama-leaning counties had to wait in long lines to cast their ballot. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz.)
Republicans have been busy since Election Day—working to make sure voters of color don’t have another opportunity to impact state politics as dramatically as they have in recent elections. But yesterday, one of the more notorious efforts was finally blocked, as a bill died that would have fudged the state’s electoral college math to water down the influence of black voters.
State Senator Charles “Bill” Carrico tried to push through a bill that would have divvied up Virginia’s 13 electoral college votes according to congressional districts won, rather than popular votes, with two at-large votes awarded to the candidate who wins the most districts. If this had been law during the November 2012 election, Romney would have won nine electoral votes and Obama four, even though Romney lost the state by 150,000 votes.
Sensing his bill’s death, Carrico attempted a last-minute adjustment so that electoral votes would be split according to the percentage of popular votes won across the state. It still failed, with many of his own Republican colleagues rejecting it.
The whole move was a pure case of election losers deciding they were going to hate the player and the game. But instead of being real game-changers, by coming up with effective policies that would win more voters, they went for an Ocean’s 11 to rob the game. But Carrico claimed afterward that his intentions were only pure. He told reporters, “I did this because so many people in my district feel the current system—winner-take-all—is not fair, and they want to see some fairness to the process.”
So, let’s talk about fairness in the process. Like the fact that those 150,000 votes that Obama won the state by mostly came from voters in Fairfax and Prince William County, many of whom waited up to five hours in line in frigid temperatures to vote. The last recorded vote in Prince William was at 10:46 p.m., almost four hours after polling was supposed to close. Voters in Fairfax reported not getting home until midnight. As of 9 p.m. on Election Day, Romney was leading in Virginia, but that was because Prince William and Fairfax hadn’t reported yet—because their voters were still waiting to vote out in the cold.
Virginia wasn’t called for Obama until after midnight, when those two counties could finally be tallied. Obama’s 150,000-vote win was owed almost purely to those voters, many of whom were African Americans and Latino Americans.
But if Carrico’s electoral vote-by-district legislation had been law last year, then those voters would have stood out in the cold all that time for nothing. Both of those counties are in District 11, which would have been one of only four districts Obama won. The only other places reporting extremely long lines were Virginia Beach, Hampton, Richmond and Roanoke. With the exception of Roanoke, all the other cities are in the few districts Obama would have won, which means they also would have spent all that time shivering in line for nothing.
But forget hypotheticals, let’s look at what actually happened: Many of the people who suffered long waits last November were elderly and disabled. An attorney for the Advancement Project reported a pregnant woman waiting in line who had to go home for warmer clothes to withstand freezing rain. She told the attorney, “I’m pregnant and scared to drink the water here, but I’m waiting to vote.” Another African-American working mother had to return to her polling site four times before she could actually vote due to long lines and her work schedule.
Here’s more on fairness: An Asian-American woman testified earlier this month before Congress members in Woodbridge, Va. that she and her husband waited for three-and-a-half hours in line, and that when she finally got to the poll books she was hassled for ID by a misinformed pollworker and insulted over her name. Her husband, who is white, was able to vote without the same ID hassle.
More fairness: A barrage of robo-calls reached Virginia voters in October telling them that they could vote by phone, or they could vote days before Election Day to avoid long lines. It was insult added to injury, because Virginia is one of the few states that doesn’t even offer early voting, though there’s now ample evidence nationwide that early voting prevents absurdly long lines on Election Day. And there was the extra insult that some of the people waiting in lines on Election Day were harassed by pollwatchers unlawfully asking for various forms of ID. Or how about Virginians being turned away or forced to vote provisional because of voter registration problems.
We can also talk about the fairness of Virginia’s election code, which allows for only one voting machine per 750 voters—in D.C. it’s one per 250 voters, Maryland one for every 200—and bars any post-election auditing, despite almost every election expert saying audits are necessary to ensure accuracy.
And let no one forget, the “fairness” of over 350,000 Virginians who weren’t able to vote at all because of a felony conviction, even after paying their debt to society—many of them labeled felons for nothing more than bouncing a check.
There’s a lot that state senators like Carrico could do if they really want to address fairness. They could aggressively push through legislation that would provide more polling site resources and finally institute early voting to alleviate the long lines. They could pass a bill that would automatically restore voting rights to people with non-violent felonies, as their governor and attorney general have asked them to do.
But instead, they rushed, first, to try to push through shady legislation that would have unlawfully redrawn district lines, packing black voters further into a handful of districts. And then they tried to push through Carrico’s legislation, which would have cancelled out hundreds of thousands of votes from mostly working class voters and people of color by rejiggering the electoral college system.
As Keesha Gaskins, redistricting and voting rights expert for Brennan Center for Justice explained to me, under an electoral vote-by-district scheme, black voters, for instance, would be drowned out in all but two of the 11 districts. Under the current popular vote, winner-takes-all construct, black voters can’t guarantee the state selecting a candidate of their choice, but they can at least influence the choice, because it would be tough for a candidate to win without their 20 percent.
Meanwhile, under the state GOP’s fraudulent redistricting attempt—and really how is this not voter fraud?—black voters would have been swiped from Republican-leaning districts and packed into a “minority” district. Republicans actually argued that these schemes were valid under the Voting Rights Act. Not likely. If this is what Virginia Republicans are doing in the name of “fairness,” then I’d be scared to drink the water there too.
Gerrymandered districts also allow Republicans in the House to not worry about reelection—and stop reforms, like immigration, that their hardcore base wouldn't want.