We’ll make a wild guess: Depending on the election results, some of you are happy and some of you aren’t.
Regardless of which of you are in which category, some questions for the day after the election remain the same, so let’s get to them:
1. Did the election resolve the sharply polarized nature of the United States? Not likely. Nor should we have it expected it to. The nature of a democracy is that there will be differences of opinion and those must somehow be accommodated. Even in our biggest landslides, there are still about 40% of the voters who wish things had turned out a different away. (The biggest landslide in modern times was in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson took 61% to 38.5% for Barry Goldwater). That may not be enough to win an election but it’s still a pretty large minority that the majority has to remember is still there. All the cultural and political differences we had on Monday are still there today and will still be there on Inauguration Day in January and will still be there for years to come. Elections may resolve certain issues — whether we should we adopt this amendment to the state constitution, whether we should we take down this Confederate statue — but they don’t really resolve the fundamental forces that brought those issues to the foreground. One of the major forces reshaping the United States right now is demographic. The group that has dominated the country from the beginning — whites — is shrinking, both in raw numbers and in percentage terms. By 2045, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that whites will become a minority in the United States, but there will be no ethnic majority. However, the nation’s population won’t be distributed evenly — we already have some states where whites are minority while others will remain overwhelming white. The question of how we govern such a diverse population is one that no single election will answer; this will be a challenge for many more elections to come. In some ways, it’s been a challenge from our very founding.
2. Did the election resolve the shape of congressional districts for the coming decade? No, it only resolved who will be drawing those lines in Virginia — the question contained in the proposed constitutional amendment on redistricting. Much of the campaigning on that amendment focused on the question of “gerrymandering” districts for the political benefit of one party or another. That’s important but now that we know who will be drawing those lines, we can turn ourselves to some other important details. Even without the census in hand, we already know from the population trends of the past decade that the 9th Congressional District in Southwest Virginia will have to expand geographically to take in more people. The 9th already includes some pieces of the Roanoke Valley — Salem (home to Rep. Morgan Griffith) and some parts of Roanoke County. Will the 9th be redrawn to pull in even more, perhaps all, of the Roanoke Valley? That’s the simplest way to make the math work, but that solution would dramatically dilute the rural vote in the district. Is that a good idea? Will the new lines further chop up Southside Virginia (by moving more of it into the 9th District) or will they create a more compact Southside-focused district by extending the 5th District further east (and lopping off Charlottesville and parts north?) Will the new lines continue to keep Roanoke and Lynchburg in the same district — as they have been since at least the 1930s — or will they separate them? We won’t know any of this until the lines are actually drawn sometime in 2021. All we know now is the process that will be followed.
3. Did the election make it more or less likely that the General Assembly will change the way localities can deal with Confederate statues? Until this year, localities couldn’t move them at all. When Democrats took control of the legislature in January they considered it a great step forward to grant localities the right to move them if they saw fit. One provision of that law gave localities the right to hold advisory referenda on the topic — a provision that some in the legislature almost immediately regretted once some conservative rural areas started scheduling votes. In its special session, the General Assembly rebuffed an attempt to nix that provision. Now that we’ve had six such referenda — in Charles City County, Franklin County, Halifax County, Lunenburg County, Tazewell County and Warren County — will those results make the legislature more or less likely ditch the advisory referenda option? The only possible answer right now: We don’t know but our guess is that another attempt will be made to do away with the referenda option.
4. Did the election change the way elections are handled? We won’t know this for awhile — perhaps even years. Much of the confusion this year was both understandable and yet preventable. We know this much, though: Over the past two decades there’s been a distinct trend toward more people voting some way other than showing up on the traditional Election Day. This year’s pandemic only hastened a trend that was already underway. This was also the first year that Virginia allowed “no excuses” early voting and, from the number of people who took advantage of that option, it was clearly a hit. Will the percentage of “early voters” go down once the pandemic has passed? Or will the percentage only increase as more people get accustomed to the concept of an “Election Autumn” and not an “Election Day”? We’ll need several cycles to know for sure. A corollary question: Will the extended voting period change the way campaigns in Virginia are conducted? An “October Surprise” doesn’t do much good — or harm, depending on your point of view — if lots of people have already voted in September.
5. Did the election give us a respite from politics for awhile? Absolutely not. We live in an era of permanent political warfare; some Republican candidates were already maneuvering before the election to get in line for their party’s 2024 nomination. And this is Virginia: We have elections every year. Coming up in 2021 will be elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, the entire 100-member House of Delegates and various local offices. Some of the candidates for those offices have already formally announced; the passing of Election Day means that now many others will step forward. As soon as one campaign ends, another begins. In fact, they often overlap.
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