GOP voting bills aimed at party hegemony in Virginia

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Local,Virginia,Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Virginia's not the only electoral battleground with a Republican-ruled legislature where President Barack Obama mopped up last year en route to re-election.

But it is the first to act on an ambitious menu of Republican legislation aimed at preventing another Democratic triumph. The result beckons partisan paralysis of the state Senate and a budget stalemate for the second consecutive year and the death of important education and transportation reforms.

The long-term consequences, however, are more sobering.

First, let's review.

Democrats turned out in huge numbers in Virginia last fall despite the state's brand new voter identification law, creating waiting lines of four hours or more at some jammed polling places. So this year, Republicans propose even tougher identification standards, including one bill that would compel voters to present photo identification.

Bills by Democrats and even one Republican to reduce long election day lines by loosening criteria for early absentee voting have been summarily killed one after another in GOP-dominated House subcommittees over the first 17 days of the 46-day session.

One week ago, on the Martin Luther King holiday, the Senate's 20 Republicans caught one of the Senate's 20 Democrats -- civil rights lawyer Henry Marsh -- away at President Barack Obama's inauguration and, without notice and in about 30 minutes, muscled through a pro-Republican redraft of all 40 Senate seats on a party-line 20-19 vote.

The next day, a Senate subcommittee advanced Sen. Charles W. Carrico's bill to scrap Virginia's winner-takes-all method of awarding its 13 electoral votes in presidential elections and instead apportion electors by congressional district to the candidate who wins each district. Under Carrico's bill, Obama would have won only four electoral votes from Virginia last fall while Republican Mitt Romney would have won nine, even though Obama won 51 percent of the statewide popular vote to Romney's 47 percent.

Republican-led legislatures in other states Obama won -- Wisconsin and Pennsylvania -- are considering similar measures with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus cheering on the initiative.

Carrico's bill appears doomed after two Republican senators said Friday that they will oppose it when it comes before the Privileges and Elections Committee on Tuesday. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell also came out against it Friday.

Democrats are furious at what they see as thuggish efforts by GOP legislative majorities to rig elections in their favor. Now, the two sides are barely civil to each other. Each side in the once clubby, collegial Senate accuses the other of bad faith or worse.

"What they couldn't do at the ballot box they tried to do with a pencil," Richard L. Saslaw, leader of the Senate's Democrats, fumed in a Thursday radio interview.

Monday's Republican power play ignored conventions and traditions generations old in the Senate. It also ignored a 2004 amendment to the Virginia Constitution that directs legislative and congressional lines be redrawn once every decade after each U.S. census in years ending with the numeral 1.

When the Senate lines were redrawn in 2011, Democrats were in the majority. The election that fall created a 20-20 tie, but Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who presides over the Senate, tipped the scales to the right, allowing the GOP to act as the majority rather than share power.

The new lines the Republicans seek to impose could give their party the advantage in several additional districts that Democrats now hold starting with the 2015 Senate elections.

Imperiled in the partisan crossfire is a last stab at legislative legacy for the term-limited Republican governor, Bob McDonnell. He has submitted the most sweeping transportation funding reforms in 27 years, as well as a public education package that increases educators' pay but holds them more accountable.

McDonnell scowled Tuesday when asked about the Senate Republicans' ambush approach to redistricting, saying it's "not the way we should be doing business." He was blindsided by it, just like everyone else. Senate Democrats say he could singlehandedly restore legislative peace by saying he'd veto it. But when asked, the governor last week said he won't decide until the bill reaches his desk.

The measure awaits action Tuesday on the House floor. Opinion varies within the House's 68-member GOP majority whether it should pass or be defeated, or whether Speaker Bill Howell should procedurally derail it by ruling the stealthy Senate amendment aggressively reordering Senate districts statewide not germane to the original bill, which made minor technical corrections to House districts.

Should it pass and should McDonnell sign it, the U.S. Department of Justice will scrutinize the new lines for compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a legacy of the civil rights era that prohibits dilution of minority voting strength.

Republicans say their changes meet the federal law's clear intent by creating a sixth majority-black Senate district. Democrats say it's a cynical effort to subvert the law by gerrymandering heavily black precincts into one district, making other districts whiter and more GOP-friendly, a practice called packing.

Emory University political science professor Merle Black, an Atlanta-based expert on Southern politics, says the most worrisome long-term consequence would be the erosion of people's faith in the system.

"If people see their districts change every time they go to the polls, they start questioning the system," Black said.

Last week's abrupt effort to redraw Senate districts for political gain -- if it stands -- wrecks the settled decennial model for redistricting. It sets a precedent that invites retributive partisan manhandling of political boundaries with every shift in the balance of legislative power.

And in a legislature whose roots go back nearly 400 years, nothing is ever really forgotten.

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Bob Lewis has covered Virginia politics and government for The Associated Press since 2000.

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