“All men are created equal.”

This simple phrase has been the cornerstone of the American belief system for hundreds of years, and yet, so few of us seem to believe it.

But should we? Are we?

It seems the original meaning of this phrase has been perverted.  We no longer take it to mean that we are all born with the intrinsic right to be treated equally in regards to our basic needs and to be respected as human beings. (Although, at the time those words were written, we can easily argue that sentiment rang more hollow than even now.) Instead, many of us now, usually of a more conservative nature, take it to mean that we are the “same,” particularly in our abilities and capability to make it in this world.  The phrase has too often been twisted in order to deny others help that they may need.

In a culture that prides itself on individualism and often bucks the idea of a collective, particularly if it can be labeled, however correctly or incorrectly, as socialism or communism, too many people also somehow eschew the idea that we also have individual abilities.  No, for those of that mindset, being anything but capable stops where their pocketbooks begin.  If it means their tax money might have to go to support an individual who isn’t as readily able to make it in this world, suddenly we all must be the same again, with all the same basic abilities. The government should stay out of our lives because we are individuals, we live in a capitalist society, and are not some (cue the horror music) “socialist” country. Yet, not to turn to cliché terms (okay, so, yes, to turn to cliché terms), anyone who isn’t able to pull themselves up but their bootstraps must not be able to because they are lazy or don’t care, not because they are individuals with differences that affect how easily they can rise in society. What any individual is innately able to accomplish cannot vary.  We can all be president one day, of course. (Don’t get me started on that “you can be anything you want to be” phrase!)

Riiiiiiight… (We are going to cue the eyerolls here.)

It doesn’t matter that some people don’t even have boots.

It doesn’t matter that some people’s boots are falling apart.

It doesn’t matter that some people don’t have legs or feet to put boots on, or that they have to pay medical bills or college loans rather than buy said boots.

Nor does it matter that one could put their boots on and pull up the straps Every. Single. Day for 40 years and it wouldn’t matter because in a capitalist system, someone always has to be on the bottom, and few can make it to the top. (Do these people even understand capitalism at all?!)

None of this matters because we have been told since early childhood that all men were created equal, and we have repeated that phrase (and the one about being president) over and over again without thinking about it or being taught what it really means and how it actually applies in our life.

Some of us got it, though, and we realize that while being poor, or a minority, or a woman, or disabled or scores of other labels may make life harder far too often, it doesn’t mean we have less intrinsic value.  Some of us believe that while we are all created equal, we are not created the same, and that is okay.

- Rachael

 

What Can You Do for the Resistance?

I’ve always been a passionate, fiery progressive, but until Trump, I was also a lazy progressive. Every 4 years I would donate to Democratic presidential candidates or occasionally to Virginia’s Democratic Senate candidates. Other than that, my politics just involved getting fired up while watching Rachel Maddow or Bill Maher on the TV, or having spirited debates with conservatives at social gatherings. I’d get worked up, yet I was doing almost nothing of actual value for the blue team.

Then came Trump’s surprising win, and a lying, sexually-assaulting, racist, climate change-denying con artist became the most powerful man in the world. From November 9 through January 20 (Inauguration Day), I felt hopeless and actually told myself I needed to stop following the news for 4 years to make myself feel better. I decided that the R.E.M. lyrics “Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy” would become my motto to get through the Trump years. But as much as I tried, I couldn’t help sneaking peeks at the headlines on my news app. They were horrible, with the current administration rolling back environmental protections, trying to implement a racist travel ban, carrying out mass deportations that separated families, reigniting the nuclear arms race, nominating shockingly unqualified and scandal-ridden people for Cabinet posts, etc., etc.

But on January 21, all that changed. I was incredibly inspired by news of 3 million people across the country peacefully marching against Trump, the largest protest in U.S. history. That day I realized, apathy was not the answer. I needed to do something!

Since then, I’ve tried most days to do something small for the Resistance, whether it’s making phone calls or sending faxes to elected officials, donating to progressive candidates, or attending local political events. The one silver lining to the Trumpocalypse is that it has awakened myself and thousands of progressives into ACTION.

So what can we do? Many of us are very busy with work and families, but being politically active doesn’t have to be very time-consuming. Here are some easy ways to turn your frustration with the current administration into tangible action:

  1. Daily Action app

Every morning, you'll receive a text that links you to your Senator, member of Congress, or other appropriate official with a suggested script about an issue. To join, text the word “Daily” to the number 228466. The first couple of times I called the offices of my Senators/Representative, I was a bit nervous, but the staff are always very nice as they write down my message, and each call only takes a couple of minutes.

https://dailyaction.org/

https://www.facebook.com/YourDailyAction/

 

  1. ResistBot app

This app allows you to contact your Senators and Representative by fax. Text “Resist” to 50409. After you sign up, it will prompt you to type a message to your elected officials, and it will generate the fax with your address included to show them that you’re their constituent. Texting “house” after your message will send the fax just to your Representative; texting “senate” will send the fax just to your Senators.

https://resistbot.io/

https://www.facebook.com/resistbot/

 

  1. Donate to and volunteer for progressive candidates

Every dollar helps progressive candidates get closer to winning. Bernie Sanders’ campaign broke fundraising records by harnessing the power of small donors, with an average donation of $27. I donate small amounts here and there to candidates in potential swing districts who capture my interest. Right now I’m closely following and donating to Jon Ossoff’s bid for the U.S. House seat in Georgia. The special election there on April 18 would be a great chance to pull off a Democratic victory.

https://www.yahoo.com/news/jon-ossoff-pulls-record-fundraising-haul-house-special-elections-heat-162719489.html

The following article lists all of the Democrats who are running for the Virginia General Assembly:

http://bluevirginia.us/2017/02/2017-virginia-democratic-house-candidates-district

If your district is already solidly blue, you can sign up with Sister District to find a competitive race in another area to donate to/volunteer for. Sign up now, and after the June primaries, they’ll match you with a Sister Race in a swing district.

https://www.sisterdistrict.com/

 

  1. Follow state and local politics, and attend local political events

Before Trump, I knew who my U.S. Senators were, but I’ll admit that I didn’t know who my Representative was. Even further off my radar was my delegate and state senator in the Virginia General Assembly. Now I have the contact info for all of the above programmed into my phone so that I can call their offices easily to share any comments or concerns that I have as a constituent. Severe gerrymandering in Virginia has skewed state politics strongly Republican despite Virginia being solidly blue at the presidential and U.S. Senate levels the last couple of election cycles. Therefore, calling our state elected officials regularly about bills in front of the General Assembly is just as important as phone calls for national politics. Since the inauguration, I have attended progressive activist meetings and a Republican town hall meeting, and this week I’ll be attending my first City Council meeting to advocate for teacher raises. Many progressives like myself did not follow state and local politics before Trump, and the result is that many Republican elected officials ran unopposed. Hopefully we won’t make the mistake of overlooking state and local politics again!

Not sure who your elected officials are? The following websites can help:

http://whoismyrepresentative.com/

http://whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov/

 

These days, it’s often still hard to read the news headlines, BUT I feel so much better knowing that I’m taking action to help progressive causes and candidates. Viva la Resistance!

-- Mary Vause

Confirmation Bias: Certainly Not Me?

 

Confirmation Bias: Certainly Not Me?

 

        During the primaries and Bernie Sanders impromptu run, I found myself running and jumping through hoops to debunk what family and friends were saying about him on social media and their preconceived notions of what constitutes Socialism, particularly Democratic Socialism. I explained the difference between Socialism and Communism, debunked the “Bernie will tax all of us into the ground and give the money to the lazy poor!” arguments, even worked through poorly made analogies about letter grades and equivocating that to Bernie's ideals. I couldn't help but think during this time, “Why don't people just think it through and fact-check?”

            During this time, and a little after dealing with this thought, I came across a post that ran the headline, “The last time America had a Democratic Socialist, we elected FDR!” Not to ignore the terrible wrongs FDR committed, but this man was someone I idolized and respected for what he did with the New Deal. I quickly passed it along and didn't think much further on the matter. Several hours later, people were posting on the matter on my feed and letting me know that I was, in fact, incorrect.

FDR was not a Democratic Socialist and that term was used against him to delegitimize and hurt him. I found myself to be suffering from the same issue I would admonish others for: I suffered from confirmation bias.

            Simply put, confirmation bias is the bias that makes us seek and find information that already confirms what we think and believe. We often crave and are more likely to trust anything that confirms that our viewpoint is right, no matter how far-fetched it is. In the FDR and Bernie Sanders comparison, my belief that Democratic Socialism is a system that can thrive and that it has worked before was confirmed. I didn't bother to fact-check or even check who linked or posted it. I was doing the same thing as the ones I admonished.

            Maybe this has occurred to you or has you thinking about your own biases and your susceptibility to trusting them. The question then is: Where do we go from here to fix this issue? While I don't believe we can ever fully erase bias and the comfort of things that support our ideology, recognizing that this is in an issue is a good first step. The next step is taking a step back and scrutinizing the information we receive, especially if it's something we find aligns with our ideology. We must examine it vigorously, more than we would for something we disagree with, and make sure that the information portrayed is both accurate and well-researched. From there, it's about using it in a way that is helpful and productive.

            Confirmation bias is an issue that affects us all at some point. It's impossible not to have this bias to some degree and that creates issues in trying to connect and establish conversations with people on the other side. The sooner we can minimize its impact and make sure correct and useful information is being distributed, the sooner we can move forward as a society.

 

-Alex V. 

 

 

Behind the Scenes: Dark Money Influences Politics in Ways We Can’t See

 

 

By Gail Kent

 

Long before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ran for president, others have been pulling voters’ strings behind the scenes to influence the outcomes of elections. These people were not Russians, they were, and are, Americans – uber-wealthy Americans with their own agendas, often agendas that do not align with the best interests of the country.

 

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled by five to four in the Citizens United decision that is was okay for corporations and labor unions to spend an unlimited amount of money to convince people to vote for or against a candidate. It’s still illegal for companies and labor unions to donate directly to candidates for federal office, but they can create superPACs and nonprofits, shadow organizations, to accept this money from billionaires and corporations and use it to buy advertising, most of it negative.

 

PACs are subject to disclosure laws, but nonprofits, as long as their mission is “social welfare,” are not. Most of these nonprofits flout the social welfare provision of the law so that they can keep their donors’ names private, becoming virtual front organizations for candidates. This hidden money that is used for things such as advertising, “documentary” films trashing rival candidates and a variety of other disinformation campaign tactics is called “dark money.”

 

But dark money doesn’t just exist in these 501 (c)(4) organizations, as Jane Mayer, author of the New York Time best-seller Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right explains in her blockbuster published last year shortly before the election. The award-winning staff writer for the New Yorker spent five years researching the book, which centers on the billions of dollars pumped into the political arena since the ‘60s and ‘70s by Charles and David Koch and their plutocrat friends. The Kochs didn’t begin influencing politics through dark money with the Citizens United decision, but began long before by funding innocuous-sounding but agenda-laden think tanks, gifts-with-strings to academic institutions, “educational” junkets for judges (reaching all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court) and media groups.

 

Charles Koch hated government. His father, an original member of the John Birch Society, was a strict – even cruel – disciplinarian. Once his father died, Charles “went to great lengths to ensure that neither his brothers nor anyone else could challenge his personal control of the family company,” Mayer writes. “Only government and the courts remained as sources of authority . . . and if enacted, Charles’s libertarian policies would eliminate these . . . He was driven by some deeper urge to smash the one thing left in the world that could discipline him: the government.”

 

Charles and David Koch (there were four brothers, but the other two were rivals) are ferocious defenders of free-market ideas, including anti-regulation, especially anti-climate EPA regulations. The 2012 EPA identified Koch Industries, a multinational corporation with subsidiaries in manufacturing, fertilizer, refining, petroleum, chemicals, paper, ranching, commodities trading and other ventures and investments, as the single biggest producer of toxic waste in the United States. Koch Industries has been in federal court many times over the years for clean air and water violations, including lethal violations. While they have paid millions in fines, their government connections have been instrumental in helping them avoid other legal problems, such as when they were able to get a sympathetic U.S. attorney appointed to oversee a grand jury criminal investigation by making donations to key politicians.

 

The Kochs funneled $200 million or more into the 2010 elections, including supporting the grassroots Tea Party movement, resulting in Republicans gaining 63 seats in the House, putting them in control. More importantly, they gained 675 seats in state houses across the country, giving the GOP control of the redistricting process when the new census was released. This meant North Carolina variety store billionaire Art Pope was able to realize his dream of funding the redistricting computer program REDMAP, allowing conservatives to gerrymander the whole country until the next census in 2020.

 

The Kochs sponsor the advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, which was at the forefront of climate-change denial, and by the time Congress convened in 2011, the group had gotten agreements from 156 House and Senate members to support a “no climate tax” pledge. While the Kochs say their political involvement is driven by principle, “their positions dovetailed seamlessly with their personal financial interests,” Mayer writes.

 

During the 2016 election the Kochs’ initial budget for buying the presidency was $889 million. They sat out the primaries, as they usually do, then found that the only candidate they opposed won. (Their favorite was Marco Rubio.) Mayer says that rather than closing their wallet, they downgraded their budget to $750 million and poured it into 19 Senate, 42 House, four gubernatorial races and countless lesser ones all over the country. In addition, they mobilized an “unprecedented and unparalleled permanent, private political machine . . . amazingly, in 2016 the Kochs’ private network of political groups had a bigger payroll than the Republican National Committee. The Koch network had 1,600 paid staffers in 35 states and boasted that its operation covered 80 percent of the population.”

 

As it turns out, Trump had his own dark money source, and it wasn’t Koch. On March 23, Jane Mayer was interviewed on Democracy Now (https://www.democracynow.org/2017/3/23/jane_mayer_on_robert_mercer_the ) by Amy Goodman, who asked Mayer about Robert Mercer, a secretive billionaire hedge-fund tycoon, who is said to have “out-Koched the Koch brothers” in the 2016 election. Mercer, along with his daughter Rebekah, is credited by many with playing an instrumental role in Donald Trump’s election. Mayer says Mercer rescued Trump when his campaign was floundering after Paul Manaford was forced out as his campaign manager last August. The Mercers funded Trump, brought in Steve Bannon, Kelleyanne Conway and David Bossie of Citizens United.

 

The Mercers had previously invested $10 million in Breitbart News, making them co-owners. They also created an organization call the Government Accountability Institute to help drive the political narrative in the 2016 election. They created a book called Clinton Cash, a collection of corruption allegations against the Clintons, which they hoped to get into the mainstream media. They took it to The New York Times exclusively, and the Times ran a story out of it that they say they independently corroborated. A year later, the Mercers made a movie version of it, which they showed at Cannes.

 

It wouldn’t be fair to talk about dark money without mentioning George Soros, the 85-year-old Hungarian-born New York billionaire investor, who has had a 25-year relationship with the Clintons. Soros donated more than $25 million to boost Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates and causes, according to the Federal Election Commission records and interviews with associates and Democratic operatives. ( http://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/george-soros-democratic-convention-226267 ). Seven million dollars of that went to a super PAC called Priorities USA Action; $2 million to American Bridge 21st Century, an opposition research super PAC targeting Trump and other Republicans; $700,000 to an assortment of Democratic committees; $5 million to a superPAC called Immigrant Voters Win; and $5 million to a nonprofit devoted to fighting conservative efforts to restrict voting.

 

So what is the difference between the dark money investments of the Kochs and Soros? First, the sheer volume of money and breadth of influence can’t be compared. The Kochs have built a nationwide network that is set up to outlast their lifetimes, and they have invested more than a billion (perhaps many billions) over many decades through think tanks, PACs, foundations, institutes and direct contributions. While Soros has spent millions, especially dominating 527 groups such as MoveOn.org, the Kochs far outspend Soros. Unlike the Kochs, Soros was a latecomer to political involvement. It was not until the 2004 presidential election that he began investing in political causes, when he donated $24 million to defeat President Bush.

 

The other difference between the Kochs and Soros appears to be their motivation. While Charles Koch claimed in a USA Today interview that all he wanted was to “increase well-being in society” and bristled at the idea that he was motivated by boosting his bottom line, the nature of the work in his think tanks, foundations, institutes, etc., says otherwise. Soros, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have anything to gain financially by supporting progressive causes such as immigrant voters’ rights.

 

Regardless of the source, however, dark money is polluting American politics and is changing – or has already changed – our one-person-one-vote democracy into sham. Mayer’s book, Dark Money, is a must read for everyone who cares to fully educate themselves about the political landscape we are operating in, for the Koch money will influence American politics for many years to come.

 

We all know what good journalism is, don’t we?

 

It’s journalism we agree with.

 

For years, we have heard endless complaints from conservatives about the “liberal media.” It’s run by a bunch of snobbish elites determined to foist their left-wing ideology on us all. In the process, they ignore the real story of what is going on in America: decent, hard-working people are trying to find better lives for themselves and their children.

 

So, that meant liberals thought there was good journalism out there? Well, not exactly.

 

The “mainstream media” is run by corporate elites who are only in it for the money and who sensationalize the news. They concentrate on crime and entertainment and ignore the real story of what is going on in America, where decent hard-working people don’t have a chance against the big money folks.

 

I was listening to a discussion on the media on NPR Monday, and one of the commentators made an excellent point. Very few people actually know how the media works and very few actually know what good journalism is.

 

I spent almost 16 years as the co-owner of a small weekly newspaper, the DeWitt Era-Enterprise in southeast Arkansas. It would seem that we were worlds away from The New York Times, but in how we operated, the principles were the same. Tell the story as accurately and fairly as you can.

 

We were accused many times of getting the story wrong, not because we were wrong, but because the person didn’t like what we said. We were accused of biases. We were accused of sensationalism when we covered suicides and other disturbing stories. We ran the police reports every week, and readers loved them–until their names or the name of a close relative showed up in it. Then we were just terrible.

We made mistakes. I made a particularly spectacular one that involved one letter. I put down that a murder had taken place on E. Ninth Street instead of W. Ninth Street. The people who lived on E. Ninth Street were justifiably unhappy. But we never made stories up, we always checked things with sources (usually more than one), and I always had someone read all my work. We occasionally used anonymous sources, but we always knew who they were and would not use them if we didn’t think they were reliable.

 

But now journalists and the public are under attack more than ever by “fake news.”

Making stories up and presenting them as the real thing is not new, but it has gotten much easier in the age of the Internet.

 

A few years I ago I saw something on Facebook about Pepsi planning to issue a 911 memorial can with the pledge of allegiance on it, but leaving out “under God” so they wouldn’t offend anyone. It was followed by hysterical promises to boycott Pepsi.  My first thought was “what a stupid idea!” My second thought was, “A big company like Pepsi with a bunch of marketing whizzes working for them wouldn’t do something that stupid.” So I checked it out, and of course it was untrue. I have berated many of my Facebook friends for posting false information and finally at least got my cousin to say that she would be more vigilant in the future about verifying what she posted.

 

Fake news that is made up can be checked out; if the Internet makes it easier to spread a fake story, it also makes it easier to debunk it. The Trump administration has carried this even further. Now in order to qualify as fake news, it is not even necessarily false. It is something the president and his minions don’t like.

 

So, what do we do? We must turn back to those journalists, the people we have denounced as biased, as corporate tools, as only interested in sensationalism. Sometimes they deserve denouncing. Nonetheless, many of them are serious about doing the job right and holding this administration accountable for their egregious lies, flip-flops and insults to just about anyone.

 

Some will say that it is better to get your information directly from the source rather than to go through the “gatekeepers” of a media organization. But as we have seen with Trump’s tweets, if the person putting out that information is not reasonably honest, you’re worse off without the aid of someone who is able to take a longer view and put things in perspective.

 

So how do you know what you’re reading or listening to is good journalism? Well, one way is to ask yourself, does it make everybody mad?

-Christina Verderosa

There’s a certain ring to the term “coastal elite.” The type of ring that makes a person want to embrace it and all it entails: intelligence, education, money, seaside holidays with family, waking up to hear the ocean crashing against the seashore. Of course I want to take that term and slap the label on myself like a nametag at a convention of the best and brightest.

Of course I do- even if I was raised in a blue collar family, in homes that never did quite make waterfront status (but, if you looked just right, you could see the James River Bridge peaking between the houses).

Blue collar doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it does have a certain pride that most of the true coastal elite cannot even begin to understand. Democrats, liberals, progressives, we used to understand and embrace that pride as the backbone of American values. Somehow we lost touch with that (probably chasing dreams of sandcastles and speedboats or “debting” ourselves into private universities and doctorate degrees) and in a most unfortunate turn of events, a billionaire snatched it up and turned it into quite the profitable venture for himself.

While embracing that I now own two homes in waterfront neighborhoods (even if not quite waterfront) and applauding myself for finally getting a degree (although not a Masters or Doctorate), as I was feeling secretly (or not so secretly) better than others because of the position my parents have in Virginia politics, I lost where I came from. I do not imagine that I am alone in doing such a thing.

I forgot about my father coming home smelling of metal and dirt, covered in filthy insulation and likely remnants of asbestos from building our nation’s submarines and aircraft carriers. I forgot about my mother waitressing when I was young and then building her slipcover and window treatment business from the ground up, the result of inspiration, talent, and many long nights in our garage when deadlines had to be met. I didn’t remember how they bought an old, falling apart house in Hilton Village that a mostly blind woman owned, and fixed it up themselves, scraping the paint off the exterior, sweat pouring from their foreheads in the sweltering Virginia summer sun. And this they did to give our family a wonderful place to grow up.

I forgot about my father going on strike, willing to put himself on the line for what was right.  A man whose union values have been engrained in me from birth.

I overlooked the generations of my family who lived and worked on farms, on cars, building houses, painting, working in all manners and forms with their hands in decidedly un-elite occupations.

And all proud.

I am not the only one who so quickly gave up my roots to embrace what has been painted as a better way of life by people who are so certain as to what the new America should look like. This is an America full of technology, college degrees, museums, arts, and scientific advancements.  Don’t get me wrong- these things are wonderful, and, in my opinion, necessary.  But too often, while promoting for that particular future America, we have forgotten the proud workers who are grinding, welding, building, and farming, and they see it.  They see how what we have viewed as valuable has changed and left them behind. The 2016 presidential elections are, according to many, a brutal testament to the dire effects of doing so.

We must own this. I am going to guess more than a few of us liberals and progressives are in absolute denial that we could possibly look down on others for their differences, that we would be offended at the assumption that we didn’t stand for everyone. However, I think that if we really, truly examined the things we say, our opinions on those we consider less educated, even our opinions on Trump voters (yes, even them), we will realize that this elitism exists within many of us. We must stop looking down on those laborers as we sit in climate controlled buildings, with our office or academic jobs, our degrees, our collegiate gear from universities that we have ACTUALLY attended rather than just rooted for. We need to embrace our roots again, or we will lose all the dreams of America we ever had. We will be handing over votes to more billionaires who will stand for the billionaire class while stating they are for the common man.  We will lose gay rights and women’s rights, our Muslim friends will continue to live in fear for their future in this country, our immigrant neighbors will wonder if they are next to be kicked out. 

Certainly, this is not entirely something we must answer for, but whatever our role, it is one that we must not deny.  If in any way we have disenfranchised voters from our causes because we do not seem troubled about their concerns, we must work to gain them back.  We need them as our allies. We need to listen without judgement and without dismissal. As this recent election cycle has shown, they have in many ways more power than we gave them credit for.

-Rachael DeBrouse

RECENT RACIAL GERRYMANDERING IN VIRGINIA

In my mind, the subsequent legal analysis shines a light on the following points:

 

1. The recent redistricting decision in Virginia is an example of the courts invalidating a "packed" district where minorities made up so much of the district’s population that their votes were diluted in neighboring districts;

2. The Voting Rights Act and the concept of "Opportunity Districts" meant to elect minority candidates have been used against blacks and, by proxy, against Democrats by taking the districts' compositions to extremes;

3. Dragging the court appeals process out for years is an effective tactic to prevent change when those in power like the districts they've drawn. In this case, dragging out the process allowed Republicans six additional years to cause disadvantage to others during Congressional elections.

-Janice Bayer

 

RECENT RACIAL GERRYMANDERING IN VIRGINIA

By Mark Schmidt, Esq.

 

Overview

In 2015, the U.S. District Court sitting in Richmond, Virginia struck down legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly for the redistricting of Virginia’s congressional districts because the legislation packed black votes into the 3rd Congressional District, thereby diminishing black voters’ opportunities to elect candidates in other districts.

In 2016, following the failure of the General Assembly to reenact new legislation, the court adopted a new districting plan that was utilized for the 2016 congressional elections in Virginia.

The court case was Page, et al. v. Virginia State Board of Elections, et al., Civil Action No. 3:13cv678, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond Division.

Factual History

In 1868, the States ratified the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provided that no State could deny any person within its jurisdiction the “equal protection of the laws.”  Subsequently, the Supreme Court held that voting was a fundamental right, and that the impairment of voting rights based upon race violated the “equal protection clause.”

In 1965, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act (“VRA”) which was designed to eradicate discriminatory practices that restricted blacks’ ability to register and vote in the segregated South.  Until 2013, the VRA required Virginia to submit any changes to its election or voting laws to the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) for a federal "preclearance" review.  To obtain “preclearance,” Virginia had to demonstrate that a proposed law had neither the purpose nor effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race.

The federal census is taken every ten years.  The Virginia Constitution requires the General Assembly to reapportion Virginia's U.S. congressional districts every ten years based on the federal census data.  According to the Virginia Constitution, districts must be "contiguous and compact” and equal in population.

Following the 2010 census, the General Assembly adopted a redistricting plan based upon the federal census data.  Governor Bob McDonnell signed the plan into law on January 25, 2012.

The plan’s official goals were to achieve population equality among districts, compliance with federal and state constitutional requirements, and to comply with the VRA.

Delegate William Janis, the plan’s sole author and key sponsor, emphasized that his “primary focus” in drawing Virginia's new congressional maps was ensuring that the 3rd Congressional District maintained at least as large a percentage of black voters as had been present in the district under the prior districting plan.

Delegate Janis further stated that the avoidance of any “retrogression” of minority influence in the 3rd Congressional District took primacy over other redistricting considerations because if that occurred, DOJ would not approve the plan.

Additionally, according to Delegate Janis, districts were drawn to “respect to the greatest degree possible the will of the Virginia electorate as it was expressed in the November 2010 elections” and to protect incumbent congressmen.

Delegate Janis’ plan divided Virginia into eleven congressional districts.  The 3rd Congressional District started in Richmond, captured parts of Petersburg, and variously crossed the James River to include parts of Newport News, parts of Hampton, and parts of Norfolk.  The district had a black voting age population (“BVAP”) of 56.3%.  By comparison, in the districting plan enacted following the 2000 census, the district had a BVAP of 53.1%.  And when the district was first created in 1991 as a majority black district, it had a BVAP of 61.2%.

DOJ subsequently did approve Delegate Janis’ proposed plan, finding the plan did not cause any retrogression in the ability of minorities to elect their candidates of choice.

On October 2, 2013, several persons, all U.S. citizens, registered to vote, and residing in the 3rd Congressional District, filed a lawsuit against the Virginia State Board of Elections. It was alleged that Virginia had used the VRA as a pretext to pack black voters into Virginia's 3rd Congressional District and thereby reduce these voters’ influence in other districts, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Virginia’s U.S. Congressmen Eric Cantor, Robert Wittman, Bob Goodlatte, Frank Wolf, Randy J. Forbes, Morgan Griffith, Scott Rigell, and Robert Hurt (“Intervening Congressmen”) joined the lawsuit as intervenors defending the redistricting plan.

The case was heard by a three-judge court of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting in Richmond.  Trial began on May 21, 2014.

On October 7, 2014, the three-judge court ruled Virginia's 3rd Congressional District was unconstitutional because the consideration of race predominated in the drawing of the congressional district boundaries, and the redistricting plan could not survive the strict scrutiny required of race-conscious districting because it was not narrowly tailored in effect.

The Intervening Congressmen appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded the case to the three-judge court to be re-decided taking into account recent opinions of the Supreme Court.

On June 5, 2015, the three-judge court ruled again on the same grounds as its October 7, 2014, ruling that the redistricting plan was unconstitutional, and ordered the General Assembly to adopt a new redistricting plan by September 1, 2015.

The Intervening Congressman again appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but their appeal was denied.

When the General Assembly failed to enact new legislation by the target date, the three-judge court selected one of sixteen plans that had been submitted for its consideration by the parties and others.  The plan selected centered a more compact 3rd Congressional District around Tidewater, with a BVAP of 45.3% (down from 56.3%), thereby increasing the BVAP in the abutting 4th Congressional District including Richmond to 40.9% (up from 31.3%).

The new plan was implemented in time for the 2016 elections. In those elections, black Congressmen were elected in both the 3rd and 4th U.S. Congressional Districts.

The Legal Analysis

As stated above, voting is a fundamental right, and the impairment of voting rights by a state based upon race violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.  So, when race “predominates” in the drawing of a redistricting plan, a court will review the plan with “strict scrutiny” to ensure the plan is “narrowly tailored” to achieve a “compelling governmental interest.”  In contrast, if race is only one of several factors considered, and does not dominate above other interests, the plan need only have a rational basis to be valid.

Here, the court (by a 2 to 1 vote) concluded that race predominated in the drawing of the redistricting plan.  First, the court noted Delegate Janis’s statements emphasizing the importance of race in crafting the plan.  Additionally, the court noted the use of BVAPs to ensure the 3rd Congressional District would not experience any “retrogression” of minority influence.  Finally, the court observed the 3rd Congressional District was suspiciously odd and elongated, was not “compact,” and its boundaries split numerous political jurisdictions.  Concluding that race predominated in the drawing of the redistricting plan, the court then applied “strict scrutiny” to evaluate the constitutional validity of the plan.

The court and all the parties agreed that the redistricting plan’s purpose to achieve population equality among districts, to comply with federal and state constitutional requirements, and to comply with the VRA, was a valid “compelling governmental interest.”

However, the court ruled the redistricting plan was not “narrowly tailored” as to the impact it had upon minority voting influence.  Essentially, the court found the 3rd Congressional District had been a safe majority-minority district for over 20 years and did not need its BVAP to be increased in order to remain a safe district.  By unnecessarily increasing the BVAP in the 3rd Congressional District, the plan necessarily diluted BVAPs in abutting districts.

According to the court, non-retrogression was not a license for the State to do whatever it deemed necessary to ensure continued electoral success for blacks in the 3rd Congressional District; it merely mandated that the minority's opportunity to elect representatives of its choice not be diminished, directly or indirectly, by the State's actions. Further, this mandate did not necessarily apply to only the 3rd Congressional District.

 

 

Peninsula Voices for Change Blog

 

THE FIVE BRANCHES OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT

Growing up, I learned that there were three branches of our government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. I didn’t pay much attention to this information, outside of needing to know it in order to pass an exam. I took for granted that there was a President who was well-qualified and knew his job. I took for granted that there were congressmen and senators who were looking out for the best interests of the people of our country. I took for granted that the court justices could accurately interpret the Constitution and make fair decisions.

Over the past 40 years, I have continued to take these things for granted. My mind paints pictures of stately men in gray wigs creating the canvas of our nation. I imagine them protecting us for generations to come. I see them laying out a foundation that is so unbelievably strong that it cannot be shaken by anything; not a corrupt President, not even Russia.

Fast forward to the 2016 election. The Democrats have a whispy-haired, charismatic gentleman running against one of the most tenacious, nasty women who ever walked the earth. These two incredible forces represented the Democratic party as elections for the executive branch of government got underway. On the other side, a large group of conservative men and women were all vying for the Republican spot. Hillary Clinton won the Democratic vote, and an unseemly businessman secured the Republican nomination.

During the months running up to the election, a fourth branch of government emerged: the media. As the candidates squared off in the debates, we witnessed them being moderated by representatives of the press from NBC, Fox, and CNN. As the candidates held their rallies, we were able to capture them on social media via posted articles and Facebook Live. Every night, we relived the most critical and enlightening moments through hilarious recaps by the fabulous Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, and the ensemble that is Saturday Night Live.

Leading up to, and most importantly, after the election, a fifth branch of the government arose, the branch composed of the American people. The American people are typically a quiet bunch. Very few seem to enjoy getting involved in the political adventures of their country. This is evidenced by low voter turn-outs, and U.S. congressmen, U.S. senators, and state and local representatives often running unopposed for re-election. However, as the American people learned, and are still learning, they are a very important part of American politics.

Due to a breakdown in two of the branches of government, the executive and legislative, the two newly realized branches have been forced to take a stronger role in fighting for the country and the rights of its citizens.  Members of the fourth branch, the media, find themselves working harder than ever. Not only do they have to uncover and deliver the news, they also have to sift through an increasing level of alternative facts and make sure they have credible sources before publishing any information. As the fifth branch, the American people are finding themselves on the phone daily, calling their representatives. They are also attending town halls and participating in marches and rallies across the country. This may be the first instance where all five branches of the government have been fully activated at the same time. I expect the results of this engagement to be powerful.

The other day, I was reading a conversation on Facebook where a person who voted for our 45th President patted himself on the back for not protesting the Obama era as the rest of us are protesting his President. My first thought was, of course you didn’t protest; despite the fact that you weren’t in agreement with his policies, he never threatened any of your rights. We didn’t protest the Bush administration because they didn’t threaten our rights. At this point, both the executive and legislative branches of the government are threatening the rights of the American people. In order to stop this, the fourth and fifth branches of the government must activate and #resist.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” We must always remember the fourth and fifth branches of the government exist. We must not lose the current momentum as we continue to make sure their voices are heard.

 

-Juliette