The General Assembly has done many foolish and even sometimes outrageous things this year — no different than any other year, probably — but at least the foolishness and even the outrages have had explanations behind them, even if they weren’t very good ones.
The legislature gave the state’s two biggest utilities permission to overcharge customers for the next four years and not issue the customary refunds — but at least that was in the context of promises not to raise rates very much and the explanation that it needs the money to afford the transition from coal-fired power plants to other forms of energy.
Besides, Dominion Resources gives out lots of money in campaign contributions; you don’t think it’s doing that just for kicks, do you? (Appalachian was a last-minute add-on to the bill.) Throw in a few other baubles here and there to satisfy different interests — more regulatory paperwork to close coal plants to satisfy the coal interests, some solar units to make the environmentalists happy, some assistance programs for the poor for those legislators who worry about such people, and who could say no to such a bill?
While a bipartisan coalition of legislators were fast-tracking the bill to suspend utility refunds, a more partisan crowd was making quick work of proposals to do away with gerrymandering. If by crowd, you mean one person.
The chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee — Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania County — killed five bills single-handedly, simply by not calling them up for a vote. If you believe legislative districts shouldn’t be drawn to automatically give one party or another a safe seat, this was surely an outrage — but perfectly understandable if you’re the majority party. Why give up your power?
Likewise, just about everything the legislature does has some rationale behind it. The General Assembly tells public schools they have to let home-school kids onto their sports teams? That’s because home-school parents constitute an important constituency in the nominating process of the majority party — for now, the Republicans. Ethics bills get watered down by both parties; what legislator wants to have some independent investigator poking around his or her disclosure forms?
We could go on and on and find some answer, however cynical, for every vote taken.
Except for one.
House Bill 1428 was not the most important bill in the legislature. On the contrary, it involved only three people — but it does, or should we say, did touch on a universal principle: Should every voter have a secret ballot?
Right now, three voters in Montgomery County do not and, thanks to Cole, who didn’t bother to bring the bill to fix that up for a hearing much less a vote, they still don’t.
Some explanation for this odd situation is in order; an explanation that Cole couldn’t be bothered with even hearing. It goes like this:
In 1986, Radford annexed part of Montgomery County. Two property owners didn’t want to become part of the city, though, and both sides agreed to let them stay in the county. The result: Two little house-size islands of Montgomery County floating inside Radford. Everybody was happy and life went on — until the state had to redraw legislative districts in 2011.
That year, for the first time, Montgomery County (or at least a certain part of it) went one way in both House and Senate districts, and Radford went another, except . . . those lines are drawn geographically and districts must be contiguous, so when Radford went that other way, so did those two Montgomery County houses in the Swiss cheese part of Radford, along with their three voters.
That meant in both the 2011 House and Senate elections — and again in last summer’s special election after the incumbent senator resigned — those three voters effectively had no secret ballot.
Even if the vote goes 2-1 in that sliver of precinct D-3, if you’re the one voter in the minority, you know quite specifically how your neighbors voted. If people want to plunk a yard sign down in their yards to advertise their affiliation, that’s one thing; but the reason for requiring precincts to be a certain size is to preserve the secrecy of the ballot. These voters don’t have that.
Del. Joseph Yost, R-Pearisburg, whose district includes those three voters, came up with what seemed an easy enough solution: Simply draw those two houses back into the neighboring district in Montgomery County in a way that doesn’t touch anybody else.
What could be more innocuous than that? But Cole apparently wasn’t impressed. Upon inquiry, he e-mailed us to say: “This was a short session, so the committee did not have time to deal with all House Bills. Additionally, legislation that affects Senate districts should have a Senate patron.”
OK, we understand the legislative niceties and the protocol. But we’re talking here about three voters — and the secret ballot. Whether you consider that a little deal or a big deal, take your pick. Both apply.
Is this truly etiquette? Or just an excuse? But an excuse for what? The General Assembly found plenty of time to deal with squiggling some lines in one tightly contested legislative district in the Piedmont to give an advantage to the Republican incumbent, but it can’t be bothered with closing a loophole in the secret ballot in Southwest Virginia?
So what does the senator in question here— Ben Chafin, R-Russell County, who now represents Radford (and three voters on the Montgomery County “islands”) — think about all this? Don’t know. We asked him last week. He still hasn’t replied.
All we know is that come November, three of his constituents still won’t have a secret ballot, and Yost appears to be the only person in Richmond who cares.