Anya Sczerzenie

Lawmakers kill bill calling for transparency in redistricting commission

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Senate killed a House proposal to expand access to the commonwealth’s new redistricting commission and help make the process more transparent and democratic. 

House Bill 2082, patroned by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, would have required the redistricting commission meetings to be advertised and accessible to the public. The commission will draw the commonwealth’s electoral districts every 10 years. The General Assembly previously drew the districts.

The bill was passed by indefinitely in the Senate Privileges and Elections committee after passing the House with a 55-41 vote. 

“During the debates on the commission, I kept saying ‘There’s no transparency here, there’s no transparency,’” Levine said. “Well, there wasn’t, and there isn’t. Without my legislation, the commission can meet in a dark room.”

The law already requires the commission to allow public comment at meetings, but Levine’s bill called for the meetings to be more widely advertised and in multiple languages. 

Levine said that one of the most important parts of the bill is that it allowed people to comment on the district maps after they are drawn, not just before. The bill required that maps be posted on the commission’s website and three public comment periods be held prior to voting.

People are more likely to have opinions once they see the practical impact of a district map, he said.

“You might not care before, and then you look at the map and they’ve split your community right down the middle,” Levine said. 

 The bill also would have prohibited the Supreme Court of Virginia, which has the authority to decide districts if the commission can’t come to an agreement, from meeting in private. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission has been meeting virtually. Eight legislators and eight private citizens serve on the commission, split evenly between the two major political parties. For a map to be approved, 15 of the members would have to vote yes, Levine said. If two or more commission members voted against the map, the decision would go to the Supreme Court, according to Levine. The Court also becomes involved if the state legislature rejects the maps.

Levine said that the redistricting court meetings should be publicly accessible, because the Supreme Court would be acting like a legislature.

“I would’ve shined a bright light on the process, and it would have made the commission better,” Levine said. 

Virginians voted to establish the commission during a ballot measure in the November general election, where it won with 66% of the vote.

“It doesn’t make it perfect,” Levine said. “I recognize that Virginians voted for it, but I want to make it better.”

Opponents of Levine’s bill believed that the Supreme Court should have the right to meet privately. Republican members of the Voting Rights subcommittee abstained from voting on the bill, then voted against the substitute version of the bill. The vote that killed the bill in the Senate, however, had both Democrats and Republicans voting against it. 

During the House Privileges and Elections committee meeting on Feb. 3, opponents of the bill expressed concerns about whether it would go into effect in a timely manner, as well as concerns about whether the Supreme Court should be able to meet in private.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, asked whether the bill would have an impact on the 2021 district maps, because it would not have gone into effect until July 1. A public commenter asked whether the bill raised “constitutional issues” because it prevents the Supreme Court from deliberating in private. 

“Both opponents and supporters of the bill agree that we need transparency,” Levine said during the meeting.

Members of several advocacy groups spoke in support of the bill during the meeting, including redistricting coordinator Erin Corbett of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports left-of-center causes.

“We believe that the newly-developed redistricting commission should work to be accessible and transparent,” Corbett said. “With this legislation, we can better ensure language access, public comment, and inclusivity as we move through the process of redistricting in Virginia.”

A provision in the bill, which was taken out during subcommittee hearings, would not have counted prisoners from outside of the commonwealth as Virginia residents. Virginians who are imprisoned in Virginia have been counted as residents of their home districts, but Levine’s attempt to extend this to non-Virginians imprisoned in Virginia was unsuccessful. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

New Virginia laws seek to close ‘school-to-prison pipeline’

By Brandon Shillingford and Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va.-- The near future of in-person schooling is uncertain due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Virginia students will return to a system where several penalties for misbehavior have been taken off the table. 

Two new laws seek to stop criminal punishments in elementary, middle and secondary schools. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, sponsored two measures that passed the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year. The bills went into effect in July but have not yet been widely implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Senate Bill 3 prevents students from being charged with disorderly conduct during school, on buses, or at school-sponsored events. SB 729 removes a requirement that school principals report student acts that constitute a misdemeanor to law enforcement. These are acts that may be considered misdemeanors, such as assault on school property, including on a bus or at a school-sponsored event. 

McClellan’s bills are a victory, said Valerie Slater, executive director of RISE For Youth, a group that seeks to end youth incarceration in Virginia. 

“It gives the control back to principals in their own schools about what actions have to be taken further,” versus which actions can be handled within the school, Slater said.

Suspension and expulsion are used disproportionately against Black students, other students of color and those with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Those punishments, along with arrests at school, often lead to students having a criminal record, according to the NAACP. The trend is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

McClellan said she was compelled to introduce these bills after looking at data released by the Center for Public Integrity in 2015 and seeing that Virginia led the nation in nearly three times the rate of referral of students to law enforcement. She then worked with the Legal Aid Justice Center to find trends in what kind of behaviors were being punished and whether there were discrepancies involving which students were being charged. 

“When we started sort of digging into some of the cases that they had had, one of the biggest things kids were referred for was disorderly conduct,” McClellan said. “It was things like a kid on a bus in Henrico County was charged for singing a rap song and a kid in Lynchburg was sent to the principal's office and kicked this trash can on the way out of class.”

McClellan was the co-patron of bills in 2016 which addressed these issues, including a failed bill which would prevent students from being found guilty of disorderly conduct if the action occurred on school property, school bus or at a school-sponsored activity.

 Lawmakers also passed McClellan’s measure that relieved school resource officers from the obligation to enforce school board rules and codes of student conduct as a condition of their employment. Now that the Virginia General Assembly has a Democratic majority, House Democrats felt that they could pass other legislation to curb the school-to-prison pipeline, according to McClellan.

“The thing that happened in between is we had started making progress on the discipline side with things like suspensions and expulsions,” McClellan said. “And once you saw we could make progress on that, that gave us the confidence to try again with a new Democratic majority.”

A statewide analysis by Virginia Commonwealth University Capital News Service found that Norfolk City Public Schools in the Tidewater district had the most out-of-school suspensions in the state over the past five school years. This includes short-term and long-term suspensions. The data is from the Virginia Department of Education. A student is not allowed to attend school for up to 10 days during a short-term suspension, according to Virginia law. Long-term suspensions last 11 to 45 school days. Virginia students suspended from school are more likely to fail academically, drop out of school and become involved in the justice system, said a 2018 Legal Aid Justice Center report. 

Norfolk’s school district issued 21,223 out-of-school suspensions in the past five years. Norfolk school officials did not respond to a request for a statement by the time of publication. Richmond City Public Schools was the second-highest district with the most out-of-school suspensions (19,768). Virginia Beach, Newport News and Fairfax County public schools were also in the top five. The majority of students in Norfolk, Richmond and Newport News public schools are Black, according to VDOE 2020 fall enrollment data. Almost half of students in Virginia Beach are white and about a quarter are Black. Nearly 40% of students in Fairfax County Public Schools are white and almost 30% are Hispanic. Black students face out-of-school suspension at higher rates at a higher rate than white students in schools throughout the Central Virginia region. Even in districts such as Henrico and New Kent counties that are a majority white student population, often Black students were issued suspensions at a higher rate. Black students in Henrico faced out-of-school suspension almost five times the rate of white students in the 2015-2016 school year. Such racial disparity was presented to the Henrico County School Board as far back as 2012, in a published report analyzing the disproportionate suspension rate. 

Aside from incidents involving weapons, Slater said that instances of misbehavior in school should not be handled by law enforcement.

 “We should not be so quick to involve children in the justice system,” Slater said. “We know that after that first contact, the likelihood that there will be continued engagement exponentially goes up. Once a child has been engaged with the juvenile justice system, they’re more likely to be involved with the adult justice system.”

Slater praised McClellan’s legislation for taking away schools’ ability to charge students with disorderly conduct, saying that the criteria for being charged with that crime is too vague. 

“It basically says that ‘you have caused a disruption.’” Slater said. “Is wiggling in my seat causing a disruption? Is asking to go to the restroom, repeatedly, causing a disruption? Is clicking my pen a disruption? It’s so vague that it’s become a catchall for whatever a particular officer wants to say a student has done.”

David Coogan, a Virginia Commonwealth University English professor and author of the book “Writing Our Way Out,” teaches a writing workshop at the Richmond City Justice Center He said he has worked closely with incarcerated people whose criminal records stemmed from childhood. 

“Most broadly, it starts in the structure of society, before you even get to school,” Coogan said. 

Coogan said that he sees a pattern in the people he works with at the jail. Children who grow up with few resources and who experience trauma and violence in the school setting later develop addictions or become incarcerated—often both. 

“We all do stupid things as kids, as teenagers,” Coogan said. “When you’re Black and traumatized and living in poverty, the stupid thing you do, to fight back at a school resource officer, is going to land you in a juvenile detention center and it’s not fair.”

Though Coogan says McClellan’s bills are steps in the right direction, he believes that more still needs to be done. 

“If you think about all the money and time spent on school resource officers—who are like cops—we need to stop thinking about having cops in school,” Coogan said. “What if we had five times as many guidance counselors -- people with training to intervene? What if we had five times as many programs to keep kids engaged after school?”

McClellan agreed with Coogan, and said it starts with how adults in school treat kids. She pointed to cases in which kids with autism or other disabilities are treated unfairly or disciplined by adults who have no idea how to interact with them. 

“Everyone in the school building that interacts with kids, but especially school resource officers and school board members who ultimately make decisions about the code of conduct and discipline, need to have basic training on child brain development,” McClellan said.

How Biden and Trump plan to face the COVID-19 pandemic

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va.-- Both major presidential candidates hope to convince voters they have plans in place to protect the health of Americans and the economy as COVID-19 cases rise nationally. 

As of Oct. 28, there have been almost 8.8 million total coronavirus cases in the United States and 176,754 in Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the past week, the country has reached a record high level of daily new cases, according to The New York Times.

Candidates addressed their plans to address the COVID-19 crisis during the final presidential debate held earlier this month. President Donald Trump criticized former Vice President Joe Biden for wanting to “shut down the country” and said that a vaccine will come soon. 

“I’m going to shut down the virus, not the country,” Biden responded, adding that there need to be “standards,” or response protocols, in place for when rates increase in a community. 

Below are more details on Trump and Biden’s plans for handling the pandemic. 

Trump’s Plan

Samantha Zager, Trump’s deputy national press secretary, said that the president’s administration will continue to respond to the virus as they have been.

“When reelected, the President will continue his work on developing a vaccine to achieve his vision of a return to normal life and a roaring, post-COVID economy where all Virginians can achieve their version of the American Dream,” Zager wrote in an email. 

Zager also criticized Biden’s proposed response to the virus.

“Joe Biden has actively demeaned a coronavirus vaccine for political purposes, and he would surrender to the virus, hurting Virginia’s small businesses and families with another draconian shutdown of our economy,” Zager said. 

Under Trump, Congress passed an over $2 trillion dollar coronavirus stimulus package—the CARES Act—that gave money to every eligible adult in the country, as well as small businesses and healthcare facilities. Legislators recently failed to advance another stimulus package. 

Trump has stated that the U.S. is the world leader in testing, having performed 100 million COVID-19 tests. The U.S. however, does not have the highest number of tests per capita, which some health experts say is a more useful metric, according to PolitiFact, a fact checking project run by the nonprofit Poynter Institute.

 Trump said the U.S. has led the “largest mobilization since World War II” to combat the coronavirus and that no American who needed a ventilator has gone without one. Additionally, his administration has launched “Operation Warp Speed” to fast-track vaccine production. In July, Trump hoped to have 300 million doses of vaccines available by early 2021. The administration announced agreements just weeks before the election with CVS and Walgreens to provide COVID-19 vaccines to residents of long-term care facilities with no out-of-pocket costs.

Trump has also stated that the U.S. will withdraw from the World Health Organization to hold the organization “accountable for mismanagement of the coronavirus.” 

Biden’s Plan

Biden's campaign did not answer direct questions but referred to the candidate’s website which outlines ways that Biden plans to fight the virus. If elected, his administration would “spend whatever it takes, without delay, to meet public health needs and deal with the mounting economic consequences.”

He has accused Trump of having “no comprehensive plan” to curtail the pandemic that has killed over 225,000 Americans. Biden also said he backs the accelerated development of a vaccine, something that has also been a priority for Trump’s administration. 

Biden promotes swift and aggressive action from the federal government to protect families, small businesses, first responders and caregivers. Biden said helping individuals and small businesses is essential. Corporations shouldn’t be bailed out. 

Biden states that if elected he will make COVID-19 tests “widely available and free” by establishing at least 10 mobile testing sites per state and expanding programs which offer tests to people who may not know how to ask for a test, such as nursing home residents. He also plans to amend the Public Health Service Act and the Social Security Act to make sure individuals aren’t charged for COVID-19 tests, treatment or vaccines. 

Biden has also called on every state governor, as well as local authorities like mayors, to pass a mask mandate.

The Biden administration plans to provide up to 12 weeks of paid sick leave for U.S. workers. Biden promotes the passage of an emergency paid leave program that would require 14 days of paid leave for individuals who get sick from the virus or have to quarantine. 

Biden’s plan also includes helping “vulnerable nations” treat coronavirus outbreaks. 

What should the next president do?

Dr. Bill Petri, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville, said that the next president needs to focus on finding a vaccine for the disease and producing those vaccines within the U.S.

“First, the federal government needs to support fundamental research on immunization and vaccines,” Petri said. “We should be leading the world in providing COVID-19 vaccines, we don’t want China or Russia doing that.”

Petri also said that the federal government should be more involved in coordinating the COVID-19 responses of individual states, which have differed depending on individual governors. 

“What one state does affects us all,” Petri said. 

Many Democratic state governors have criticized the federal government for providing a slow-paced COVID-19 response. Some state governors have coordinated their COVID-19 responses with other states. The governors of Virginia and Maryland, as well as the mayor of Washington D.C, have attempted regional cooperation in battling the pandemic. 

Petri said that the next president should continue to support the CDC as well as individual state departments of health, including the Virginia Department of Health. 

In a recent Pew Research poll, 57% of registered voters surveyed said they are “very or somewhat” confident in Biden’s ability to handle the impact of the coronavirus, while 40 percent say they are “very or somewhat” confident in Trump’s ability to do so.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Poll of Virginia voters favors Biden; shows mixed support for mail-in voting

By Anya Sczerzenie, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A poll released this week by the Virginia Commonwealth University L. Douglas Wilder School of Government shows presidential candidate Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner leading by double-digit margins in the commonwealth. 

The Richmond-based university conducted a telephone poll of just over 800 adults from Aug. 28 to Sept. 7. 

The results show Democratic nominee Biden ahead of President Donald Trump by 14 percentage points (53% to 39%). Warner, a Democrat who has represented Virginia in Congress for more than a decade, is ahead of his Republican challenger Daniel Gade by 17 percentage points (55% to 38%). The poll had a margin of error of 5.17 percentage points for all adults sampled and 6.22 percentage points for likely voters.

Biden is leading in the Northern, South Central and Tidewater regions of the state, while Trump leads in Western and Northwestern Virginia. 

Stephen Farnsworth, director at the Fredericksburg-based University of Mary Washington Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said that Trump’s message resonates with rural voters in the western part of the state.

“His focus on the message of Christian conservatives resonates well in rural areas,” Farnsworth said. “Trump has appointed politically conservative judges, and Christians have been well served by him.”

Farnsworth said that Trump tends to lose in suburban areas of Virginia such as Northern Virginia, where voters tend to be socially progressive but fiscally conservative.

The poll also provided insight into the demographics of Biden voters. 

“Something that was interesting was the strength of women as an indicator of support for Biden,” said Farrah Stone, who directed the VCU poll.

Women were more likely to support Biden over Trump by 22 percentage points (58% to 36%). Men preferred Biden over Trump by five percentage points (47% to 42%). In July, a Wilder School poll found that men were more likely to say they would vote for Trump.

The poll also shows Biden’s nomination of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate does not significantly affect his support among women or minorities. 

“If you’re looking at Kamala Harris, there aren’t significant differences between whites and minorities, or men and women,” Stone said. “What was significant was whether you were a Democrat or Republican.” 

Farnsworth said that vice presidential candidates often don’t change people’s votes, but they can help a candidate by increasing turnout among people who support the candidate but wouldn’t otherwise vote.

“If Biden’s pick of Harris ramps up turnout among African American voters, then that was a smart decision by Biden,” Farnsworth said. “This election is largely frozen in place; there aren’t many voters who are undecided.”

Hillary Clinton secured a Democratic victory in the commonwealth during the last presidential race, beating Trump by over 212,000 votes. The 2016 turnout of registered voters was higher than in 2012, but lower than 2008, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. 

The poll also asked voters about an issue that has recently come to the forefront of election news: the reliability of mail-in voting. 

Virginians are split on whether mail-in voting is trustworthy. When combined, 50% of respondents are “somewhat or very confident” that mail-in votes will be accurately cast and counted, while a combined 48% are not too or not at all confident about the process. Trust in mail-in voting is affected by party affiliation, with a majority of Republicans finding it untrustworthy, according to the VCU poll. 

“The differences are significant across party lines, which line up with voting and support for Trump,” Stone said. 

Sixty-seven percent of Republicans said they were “not at all” or “not too” confident in the accuracy of mail-in ballots. 

“Trump has tried to increase public doubts about mail-in voting,” Farnsworth said. “No previous candidates have emphasized mail-in voting this much, but it’s never been this significant before.”

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