Legal matters: How court rulings will affect the 2016 elections

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Governor Terry McAuliffe’s restoration of felon voting rights, which is headed to court, is the third battle that affects this year’s election in Virginia. Photo by Robinson Governor Terry McAuliffe’s restoration of felon voting rights, which is headed to court, is the third battle that affects this year’s election in Virginia. Photo by Robinson

Although it’s not something most voters tend to notice, Virginia’s upcoming congressional and presidential elections have already, to a surprising large degree, been shaped and remolded by a number of crucial court rulings (with one of the biggest still to come).

The first of these legal battles began way back in 2010, when the General Assembly was fighting over the constitutionally mandated decennial congressional redistricting (say that three times fast).  At the time the GA was split, with the Republican-dominated House of Delegates having approved one plan, and the Democratic-controlled Senate pushing another. The elephants, astutely realizing that they were likely to flip the Senate in the next election, basically sat on their haunches until they gained an additional two seats, and then passed their preferred redistricting plan with an assist from then-lieutenant governor Bill Bolling.

Fast forward six years, and that plan (which, incidentally, had the approval of incumbents from both parties) has been found unconstitutional thanks to its blatant racial gerrymandering, and replaced by a less GOP-friendly map created by a panel of federal judges. The reason that judges drew the new lines is because assembly Republicans played a high-stakes game of chicken, assuming the U.S. Supreme Court would bail them out before the election. But due to the death of Antonin Scalia, among other factors, the supremes refused to hear the case, and thus the elephants’ 8-3 congressional advantage in Virginia is now greatly imperiled.

The second big legal battle was waged over the voter ID law passed by the Republican-controlled assembly after Barack Obama beat Mitt “Moneybags” Romney in the 2012 presidential election. The law requires voters to show an approved form of ID, such as a Virginia driver’s license or U.S. passport, at the polls. If they don’t have one, they are forced to cast a provisional ballot that will only be counted if and when the voter supplies a valid ID to the registrar’s office.

Although the Democratic Party of Virginia fought hard to get this law (which, like all voter ID laws, disproportionately affects poor, elderly and minority voters) overturned, a federal judge recently ruled it constitutional, which means it will be in effect for the current election year, at the very least.

The final big legal clash will be fought during an upcoming special session of Virginia’s supreme court, where the fate of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s recent move to restore the voting rights of more than 200,000 convicted felons will be decided. Republicans have been apoplectic about McAuliffe’s action, and have vowed to overturn it before the November election. The court’s accelerated schedule, along with recent revelations that a small number of felons in prison and on active probation accidentally had their rights restored, indicates that McAuliffe’s clemency order might be in jeopardy, but we won’t know for sure until the ruling arrives.

What’s being lost in all of these skirmishes, however, is the fact that this election almost certainly represents the high-water mark in the GOP’s campaign to systematically disenfranchise as many Democratic voters as possible. With the U.S. Supreme Court now evenly split between liberals and conservatives, and the near-certainty that President Hillary Rodham Clinton will select the next two to five justices, the long-term prospects for strict voter ID laws and extreme racial gerrymandering are looking grim. As is the fate of the Donald Trump-led Republican Party, for that matter.

So watch out, all you mollycoddled incumbents and vote-suppressing extremists —one day soon you might actually have to start winning elections fair and square.

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, twice-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.

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