Whither Virginia in the 2016 national elections?

In 2016 once again, Virginia, with its 8,382,993 inhabitants, 11 congressional districts and 13 electoral votes, is shaping up as an important electoral battleground. How things go in Virginia will depend on voter registration and turnout.

Virginia was one of the states of the Confederacy and later of the “solid” segregationist South. It is a right-to-work state, which has kept union membership around only 5 percent.  But there is a large African American population (about 20 percent) concentrated in the Southeast, and a smaller but growing (about 9 percent) Latino population concentrated in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and exurbs to the North. In addition, migration of non-Southerners to northern Virginia has changed state politics in a more progressive direction in recent years.

Over the last several years, election outcomes in Virginia have swung back and forth between Republicans and Democrats, largely depending on election turnout.

In 2008 and again in 2012, Virginia went for Obama by small but secure majorities. In 2008 Virginia’s voter turnout was an unusually high 74.5 percent of registered voters. Obama defeated the Republican Party candidate, Arizona Senator John McCain, in northern Virginia’s suburbs and exurbs of Washington, D.C., in Richmond (the state capital), and in theTidewater area of southeastern Virginia, which includes Norfolk, Portsmouth and Hampton. These are all areas in which there is a concentration of African-American and other minority voters. With Obama, the Democrats picked up three new House seats in the state, plus an open Senate seat won by Democrat Mark Warner.

In the next presidential election, in 2012, the pattern repeated with minor variations. Voter turnout was still highat 71.78 percent of registered voters.

But things have been very different in non-presidential year elections.

In 2010, with a turnout of registered voters of only 44.01 percent, the Democrats lost three House seats, and the Republicans won all three statewide elective offices – for governor, lieutenant governor and state attorney general.

In the state legislative elections in 2011 and 2015, voter turnout as a proportion of registered voters was abysmal, at 28.61 percent and 29.1 percent, respectively. Politically this meant that the Republicans widened their control of the House of Delegates (the lower house of the General Assembly, Virginia’s state legislature) in both years. The Republicans now also have a majority in the state Senate.

In 2014, voter turnout went up to 41.6 percent, and all three state executive offices were won by Democrats. But the Democrats retained only 3seats in the federal House delegation, the Republicans retaining 8.

Overall, Department of Elections statistics suggest a decline both in voter registration (as a proportion of eligible voters) and turnout (as a proportion of registered voters). Given that both registration and turnout correlate highly with income, this harms the Democrats and helps the Republicans. It also underlines the point that voter registration, mobilization and turnout are the key to defeating the right in November 2016, in Virginia and all over the country.

How is the right wing managing to suppress the vote? Through racial gerrymandering, onerous voting requirements (a mixture of methods including photo ID and hard-to-get-to polling places), and other measures. This is, of course, a national pattern. The Republicans and the right have noticed that outcomes depend more than anything on the turnout of the Democratic Party’s electoral base, so they do whatever they can to keep people from registering and actually voting.

Virginia Republicans are on the cusp of suffering a defeat on racial gerrymandering. On January 7 a federal court ruled that the Republican-controlled legislature had engaged in illegitimate racial gerrymandering when they defined the boundaries of the Third and Fourth Congressional Districts in the Southeastern part of the state. The court also imposed its own map. The original complaint was that the legislature’s Republican majority had deliberately packed African-American majority areas into the Third Congressional District, which is represented by an African-American Democrat, Bobby Scott, thereby making it much harder for African-American voters to have their voices heard in the neighboring Fourth Congressional District immediately to the Southeast. The court mandated map changes to the boundaries of those two districts, and made other adjustments, so that the Third District has fewer African-Americans and the Fourth District has more. Scott will most likely hold onto his seat in November, but the chance that the Democrats take the Fourth District seat also is greatly increased.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the ultra-right-wing Republican incumbent in the Fourth District, Randy Forbes, is exploring a run for a seat in the neighboring Second District, where the incumbent Republican congressman, Scott Rigell, is retiring.

The Republicans have appealed the court-mandated remap to the U.S. Supreme Court, so it may be a matter of months before the ultimate situation is clear. In addition, another Republican, John Hurt, is retiring from his Fifth Congressional District seat, creating another open seat in an area with a fair number of African-American voters.

There is no federal Senate, state legislative or state executive election in Virginia this year.So the results of the presidential election, and of Virginia’s 13 electoral votes, and the election for the state’s 11 House members, are tied together. The crucial factors are voter registration and turnout.

All the Democratic presidential candidates see Virginia as key to their fate in November. The Republicans feel the same way and are using all their demagogic tricks in Virginia as everywhere else.

Anti-immigrant themes are already being struck. Donald Trump has selected Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors in the northeastern part of the state, as his campaign chairperson. Stewart gained national fame by being one of the first local officials to instruct his police force to demand to see immigration documents from people they stop for traffic and other offenses. Prince William County (where this writer lives) has been a major area of settlement for immigrants from Central America, and there were immediate problems with police harassment amidst a wave of fear that led some people to move out of the county. Non-citizens cannot vote, but many live in households that include voting citizens as well as documented and undocumented non-citizens, so this is an effective vote-suppressing mechanism also, given that Latino voters in Virginia vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats. 

There will be no dull moments in Virginia, or national, politics this year.

Photo: How is the right wing managing to suppress the vote? Through racial gerrymandering, onerous voting requirements (a mixture of methods including photo ID and hard-to-get-to polling places), and other measures.  |  AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.