A Republican-dominated general assembly is churning out laws that target the state’s new minorities

Virginia: a rights battleground

VIRGINIA prides itself on being a birthplace of enduring democratic traditions. It was here that America made its first foray into representative government: in 1619, the House of Burgesses was created to govern the Virginia colony in partnership with a governor appointed by the British crown.

A Republican-dominated General Assembly is churning out legislation targeting the new minorities: Asian and Hispanic immigrants and LGBT Virginians, all of whom have a growing presence in the vote-rich metropolitan areas that favour Democrats. Such legislation—and the pointed debate it engenders—sharply contrasts with the image of Virginia as a forward-thinking, Upper South state that began to emerge in 1989 with the victory of L. Douglas Wilder as the nation’s first African American governor.

And though Virginia is a suburban-dominated state in which the majority of residents are non-natives with increasingly moderate views that favour Democrats, hyper-partisan gerrymandering has allowed Republicans, for most of the past 15 years, to maintain a firm grip on the legislature.

The next governor, in 2021, will accept or reject new legislative boundaries based on the previous year’s census. Population growth and accelerating diversity favour the Democrats, but those trends can be blunted with gerrymandering. A map that favours the Republicans is almost certain to be put in place if there is a Republican governor to sign it.

That allows Republicans to focus on ideas that matter most to their narrowing, conservative and largely rural base. They do not appear to mind that this projects, to an audience beyond Virginia, a discomfiting picture of America’s 12th-largest state.

Republicans are also pushing a requirement that residents registering to vote must produce a birth certificate. Likely to be vetoed by Terry McAuliffe, the departing Democratic governor, the bill would be the latest obstacle to voting pressed by Republicans in what Democrats say is a continuing effort to suppress turnout of their most reliable voters: seniors, students, minorities, and foreign-born newcomers.

The debate over these issues is a preliminary proxy battle over higher stakes. In November, Virginia will choose a new governor. The election is likely to be viewed as early referendum on the Trump presidency. Republicans no longer control Virginia’s statewide offices, such as governor and United States senator. And they are desperate to win back the governorship, if only to perpetuate Republican legislative power into the 2030s.

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