Political ‘Infrastructure’ and the future of West Virginia Politics

With all the discussion of physical infrastructure in the last six months, the possibility exist that we have forgotten about a more important type of infrastructure in society.  The political institutions which comprise key aspects of a democracy arguably constitute a more important ‘political’ infrastructure in our society.  In the last decade, the West Virginia Republican Party has significantly altered these institutions, which tilt elections in their favor for the immediate future.

Democrats once held great sway in West Virginia, but since 2000, the state dramatically turned red.  Some of the reasons relate to the focus on political issues.  The Bush administration started a trend of focusing on political issues leaning more towards the social policies rather than economic policies.  Most residents in West Virginia hold anti-abortion views and the GOP capitalizes on this in every single election.  And that’s part of the game, so to speak.  Candidates and their parties have the responsibility of framing the issues in a way which appeals to voters and then help turn out those voters.  However, the systems and means by which we elect our representatives are changing in ways which unfairly help Republicans.

So what are examples of these changes in political infrastructure?

1. Most people overlook the elected position in West Virginia of Secretary of State.  This individual bears the primary responsibility of ensuring free and fair elections for the entire state.  The Secretary of State possesses wide latitude in determining how counties conduct elections and tabulate votes.

While we often overlook the this position, the entire nation should understand the importance of the position after the mess with Georgia’s Secretary of State in the 2020 Election, where he refused to overturn the results of the state’s presidential returns.  In West Virginia, current Secretary of State Mac Warner raised eyebrows after his election in 2016 by firing 16 employees in the Office of Secretary of State almost immediately.  As it happened, most of the 16 employees were Democrats.  Warner hired 23 individuals, and almost all were Republicans.  Regardless of the level of employees’ competency, the optics were bad.  

Firing a group of people and then replacing them with members of one political party provides the Republican Party with their people on the inside of key government positions on how to handle election policy.  Moreover, those 16 people who lost their jobs?  They filed lawsuits for wrongful termination and settled with the state.  The payouts totaled over $3.2 million of your tax dollars.  Small price to pay for controlling the gears of elections.

2. The state legislature also contributes to the development of Republican political infrastructure.  One of their more recent changes involves the creation of an intermediate court system.  Prior to this change, any civil or criminal complaint would originate in the appropriate circuit court and any potential appeal moved directly to the West Virginia State Supreme Court.  The intermediate court of three judges adds another layer to the legal system, which benefits those who fall into the Republican camp.  Adding another court to West Virginia makes it more difficult for individuals with less financial resources to pursue a claim or an appeal in courts.  This, in sheer percentages, would likely benefit Republicans more than Democrats.  The new law, which maintains that these judges on the court will be elected in the future, allows for the governor to appoint the first round of judges on staggered terms.  Governor Jim Justice, of course, is a Republican.  

3. Last year, the State Senate passed SB 565, which would have altered elections in some concerning ways.  Current election law in West Virginia allows for early voting in person to occur from the 13th day prior to the election to the 3rd day prior to the election.  This law would have changed that early voting period to the 17th day prior to the election to the 7th.  What’s the rationale for this type of change? 

More concerning about SB 565 was the provision which would have allowed for purging voter registration rolls if a voter did not vote in the previous election.  This would allow the Secretary of State more control over elections and the right to vote.  If a voter sat out a single election, the Secretary of State could remove their name from the voting pool.  The Republican Party would control a significant piece of the infrastructure in elections.  

Ultimately, SB 565 did not pass through the House of Delegates before the 2021 session ended.  Yet, as with most legislation, it stands to reason that the bill’s sponsors will pick this up again in the 2022 session.  

4. Republicans currently hold a supermajority in both houses of the legislature, and this means they can pass virtually any piece of legislation they deem necessary.  Democrats can do little to push back.  One of the perks of having a majority at this particular moment is that the GOP controlled the redistricting process for the senate and the House of Delegates.  Republicans instituted some rather significant changes in this area which create more favorable circumstances for their candidates.

The most noteworthy change to the system stemmed from the decision to move from multi-member districts to single member districts in the House of Delegates.  Previously, the multi-member districts played an important role in helping to maintain representation of an area proportional to the community at large.  For instance, in the old system, I lived in House District 16, which had three seats.  A voter could choose up to three people to represent the district, allowing for a range of representation.  In the Election of 2020, House 16 had two Republicans and one Democrat.  Two of the three are white and the third is black.   

Multi-member districts also have a natural immunity to gerrymandering (redrawing district lines to help or hurt a candidate or group).  It becomes more difficult to fudge with the districts if less of them exist.  The old system had 67 districts, and the new one will have 100.  That’s 50% more districts to draw in a way that would benefit particular people, groups, or parties.

Questions quickly popped up over a change to a district affecting incumbent Caleb Hanna (R-44), whose new district would have included part of Pocahontas County.  Delegates requested the change because of a white supremacist group which lives isolated in Pocahontas County (Delegate Hanna is African-American).  The white supremacist group in said county is largely defunct and would likely have no impact on any election.  Critics also pointed out that the Republicans only wished to protect racial minorities if they were of the same party.

Republicans also redrew the districts into a fashion whereby many Democratic incumbents would face one another in an election, whereas few Republicans would face such primary contests.  

If you look at the new districts, some of the shapes appear bizarre enough to suggest gerrymandering.  The accompanying demographic data also presents some curious numbers on race.  Not one of the 100 districts contains less than a 74% white grouping.  Ironically, one of the districts which has the largest non-white percentage is home to Delegate Sean Hornbuckle (D-16), a candidate so widely popular in the Huntington area, he would probably win regardless of the racial makeup. 

There are only a few of the major areas in the state where I have a deep level of familiarity, and two of those are Huntington and Charleston.  If Republicans had a commitment to protecting racial minorities, I can assure you that the committee on redistricting could have drawn a better map for the Huntington and Charleston areas.

Why does this stuff matter?  

The most significant right any citizen has in a democracy is the right to vote.  Without that unobstructed right, the people are at the mercy of those in power.  The political infrastructure which is being altered in West Virginia is worth examining:

  • The Secretary of State’s mismanagement of a system which includes his stacking his office with political allies.
  • Creating an additional layer of courts which can only benefit those with financial resources, imbued with Republican appointed judges for the foreseeable future 
  • Attempting to alter voting rights legislation 
  • Abandoning multi-member districts 
  • Gerrymandering districts to benefit one party and certain people 

This leads to a state dominated by a single party and no true representation of the people.  The move from blue to red in the last two decades finally saw Republicans surpass Democrats in number of registered voters, with 36.8% and 36.5% respectively.  Surprisingly, 22.6% of voters in West Virginia hold no party affiliation.  These percentages definitely aren’t indicative of the government the state has.

The state has also witnessed a few politicians make a flip in party affiliation.  We are all aware of Jim Justice’s transition from Democrat to Republican, but others have seen the light, as it were.  

In 2014, Daniel Hall flipped to the Republican Party when the State Senate held a 17-17 balance, giving the GOP a majority.  At the time, he noted, “Political climates change, and I made a decision today to keep Raleigh, Wyoming and Mcdowell [sic] counties at the table in the West Virginia Senate. I have always picked our people over party…and did today as well. This decision will upset some, but had to be made for our district to be relevant.”  

This past summer, Delegate Mick Bates switched to the majority party, giving the Republicans a 78-22 advantage in the House.  Bates wrote in a statement explaining his move, “At a national level, the controlling interests and leadership of the Democratic party continue to pursue positions that alienate and anger voters in rural parts of the country and don’t reflect the priorities, values or beliefs of the people in West Virginia.”  That’s a coded message explaining that his district voted heavily for Donald Trump, and he sees the proverbial writing on the wall. 

Last week, another relevant switch occurred when former Delegate Doug Reynolds announced he was leaving the Democratic Party for the GOP.  The news seems relevant because it has to precede some type of announcement for another run at office.  Reynolds is not at all someone who could be described as conservative, but after losing the 2016 Election for Attorney General to Patrick Morrissey, he, too, must have seen which way the winds are blowing.

Reynolds’ party switch is more concerning than others because he founded and runs HD Media, which owns a number of newspapers in Southern West Virginia, including the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, and the state’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail.  These important institutional mechanisms for conveying key information, endorsements, and other political news have largely been fairly liberal in the past.  Does that change in the future?

One thing is for certain.  The Republican Party has effectively laid the groundwork for political domination of state politics for some time to come.  A one-party state benefits no one.

Make Georgia Howl: Voter restrictions are dangerous to democracy

Voting is the one form of political participation in which a majority of Americans will actually do in their lifetime.  Establishing a system free and fair elections is the most significant task for the government.  States largely have free rein to establish election laws and voting requirements, provided they do not violate some baseline rules from the federal government.  

The advantage of allowing states to create differing policies allows for localized control to best fit the needs and wants of the citizenry.   We know that people in West Virginia think differently than people from Oregon, or New York, or most other places.  Americans still have a broad set of values, ideas, and laws which link us together, but state autonomy allows for us not to be in complete lockstep.

However, the autonomy of states has not always brought about positive policy changes.  Southern states frequently violated the voting rights of black Americans.  Until key aspects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were overturned in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), states with a history of voter discrimination had to be given ‘preclearance’ by the federal government before making changes to election laws.  

Dangerous Provisions

Thanks to the Shelby decision, Georgia is now free to change election laws without preclearance.  The newest Georgia legislation, SB 202, implements strange, nearly inexplicable rules about voting.  This legislation includes:

• A shocking edit that changes the head of the State Election Board from the Secretary of State to a chairperson chosen by the General Assembly.  This seems very peculiar, particularly in light of the pressure from former President Donald Trump, who attempted to persuade the Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger (R), to refuse certifying the 2020 Presidential Election for Joe Biden.  The law also changes the Secretary of State’s role on the Election Board to a non-voting member.   

If this wasn’t enough, the Secretary of State is obligated to give any and all assistance to the State Election Board, which is specifically named as having “sole discretion” about what is necessary to enforce the law. 

This particular aspect of the law would also allow for the new chairperson of the State Election Board to be chosen solely by the state legislature, omitting any participation by the governor.  This would also appear to be a form of retribution, considering Governor Brian Kemp (R) refused to assist Trump in changing Georgia’s election results.

• The State Election Board is now empowered to suspend a county or municipal superintendent over voting districts and replace them with a temporary official of their choosing.  This would be extremely helpful in having localized officials who will kowtow to the desires of the Board. 

• The State Election Board can implement emergency rules or regulations “in circumstances of imminent peril to public health, safety, or welfare.”  There seems to be little oversight of this authority and one would presume the Board’s emergency powers are subject only to judicial review by appropriate state and federal courts.

• The Secretary of State must obtain information from the state’s offices on voters who might have left the state, died, or become ineligible to participate in elections.  The Secretary of State must “conduct list maintenance on the list of eligible electors.”  That’s a nice way of saying voter rolls must be purged.

• The law amends Georgia policy which had allowed for buses and other vehicles to be used as polling places.  Now, these mobile voting precincts can only be used in the event of an emergency as declared by the governor.  What effect does this have?  It means long line waits will not be alleviated by adding mobile voting units.

• This policy would also amend a requirement for at least one election booth per 250 registered voters in a precinct.  That is now in effect for only state-wide elections.  In all other cases, the local officials can increase or decrease the number of voting booths needed, based on their predictions of what is need. 

Allowing a reduction in voting booths will mean longer wait times and discourage individuals from exercising their right to vote.  Local offices are as important as statewide races.  State legislatures make more of the policies which govern us than federal laws.

• The window for applying for an absentee ballot would be greatly diminished.  Prior to this bill, policy stated a person could apply for an absentee ballot up to 180 days prior to the election.  That window is now reduced to no more than 78 days prior the election, but not in the preceding 11 days before the election.

• Only election officials can send out unsolicited applications for absentee ballots.  If a private citizen or group wants to give out applications for absentee ballots, they can only send them to people who have not already “requested, received, or voted an absentee ballot.”  Any person or group who wants to send these out, they have to check with the state’s list of people who have not already requested, received, or voted an absentee ballot. 

What’s the effect here?  To discourage voting rights groups or parties from mailing out applications for absentee ballots.  The 2020 Election included a large number of absentee ballots and those who participated in this manner disproportionately voted for Democratic candidates.  Not so coincidentally, the Georgia General Assembly has strong Republican majorities.  They do not want people voting absentee ballots.

• Early voting ‘drop boxes’ are permitted at a ratio of one per every 100,000 registered voters per county or the number of advance voting locations in the county (whichever requires less).  This means that urban areas, such as Atlanta (mostly in Fulton County), would have a little bit of a problem.  In the 2020 Election, Fulton County offered 30 early voting locations.  The population of Fulton County is slightly over 1 million.  Even if every single person in the county registered to vote, that would only mean they would need 10 drop boxes for the area, one-third of the amount the city of Atlanta provided in 2020.  Less options for locations to drop off ballots means a more difficult process and the greater likelihood that someone would be frustrated and simply not vote.

• Absentee ballots are placed in a smaller envelope, which is sealed, and placed into a larger envelope.  That’s a practice used by many states — but Georgia requires the outer envelope have the name, date of birth, and driver’s license (or ID) number of the voter.  Why would we allow such key identifying information to be visible?  The new law claims it is to ensure the voter actually filled out the ballot, but that seems redundant when we consider the many other security measures already in place.

• Polling hours on Election Day can only be extended by a superior court judge from that specific county “upon good cause shown by clear and convincing evidence that persons were unable to vote at that precinct during a specific period or periods of time.”

• Special elections or runoffs were held nine weeks after the general election in November.  SB 202 reduced that time frame from nine weeks to 28 days.  Why the reduction?  Probably due to the fact that between the November elections in 2020 and the runoffs in the first week of January of 2021, tens of thousands of Georgians registered to vote.  Democrats were able to register more citizens and subsequently won both Senate seats in the runoffs. 

• Of course, the most bizarre of the new changes to election law states:  “… nor shall any person distribute or display any campaign material, nor shall any person give, offer to give, or participate in the giving of any money or gifts, including, but not limited to, food and drink, to an elector [voter].” 

Do Georgia’s lawmakers somehow believe that providing someone food and drink to a voter waiting in line would somehow cause them to change their vote?  They aren’t handing out pints of whiskey, but I think drinking sounds like a better idea when I look at the impact of these changes to election laws. 

The conclusions

What can we derive from this legislation?  The changes from a Republican controlled General Assembly can only be seen as a reaction to the results of the 2020 Election.  Georgians voted for President Joe Biden (D), the first Democrat who won the state since Bill Clinton in 1992.  Citizens also voted for Raphael Warnock (D) and Jon Ossof (D), two Democrats in a state which had consistently voted Republican for the last 15 years.

Raphael Warnock’s election deserves special mention, as he is the first black citizen to become a United States Senator for Georgia, and only the 11th person in American history to hold that distinction.  The fact that Warnock is a black man cannot be ignored in a state with a history of racism. 

Georgia is changing.   The citizens are demonstrating that the status quo in terms of the power structure is no longer acceptable.  The population is approximately 60.2% white, 32.6% black, and the remainder of other races and while the racial makeup by percentage has not changed, black voter participation has increased.  According to Pew Research, the last 20 years has seen considerable growth in the number of eligible voters in Georgia, with nearly half the additional 1.9 million people being black. 

In 2018, Georgia came within a hair’s breadth of electing Stacey Abrams (D), who would have been the first black governor of the state and the first female elected.  In 2020, many political experts credited Abrams with a massive voter turnout effort which led to key victories in the Senate and Presidential elections.

I have no doubts there are some racists in Georgia who hate the idea of black citizens exerting such influence.  But I also believe there are plenty of white, male Republicans who are simply afraid of losing their grip on power and policy.  These changes to elections and voting laws are designed to drive down participation by Democrats, particularly people of color.  It’s a calculated effort for a certain group of people to keep their positions of authority.

Critics of my position would try to explain that SB 202 makes Georgia’s elections more secure.  I mean, after all, they named this monstrosity “The Election Integrity Act of 2021,” because who doesn’t love a good euphemism?  And there are provisions within the law that make some changes to election procedures which will no doubt make it more secure.  However, you cannot swallow a bill with some good provisions when it contains so many bad provisions. 

Democracy always belongs to the people who show up to vote.  Georgia’s new policy makes it more difficult for people living in urban areas (mostly Democrats and minority races) to show up to vote.  Americans should be concerned for a number of reasons, because Georgia isn’t the only state restricting ballot access.  It’s just the most audacious and discriminatory in the effort to do so.