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Progressive Voice: A New Day in Richmond

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Rip Sullivan

Amid the wreckage of the 2016 Presidential election, I was inundated by folks — reliable activists and, more importantly, lots of new faces – wanting to push back against the policies and, importantly, the style of politics Donald Trump was peddling.

They wanted to do something — immediately. As House Democratic Caucus Campaign Chair, I stressed the importance of the upcoming November 7 election. In response, people exclaimed that they wanted to do something that weekend.

That desire to “do something,” birthed an historic wave election.

I have been asked repeatedly since last Tuesday whether we really expected to win this many seats. My answer is that we knew we could, so we developed a strategy to ensure that, if a wave developed, Democrats and our supporters would be positioned to capitalize in races across the Commonwealth.

And did we ever capitalize.

As with every election, we knew turnout would be the difference. Would that desire to do something translate into votes from folks we really needed to get to the polls? Would people tune in to these important House of Delegates races, or wait until next year’s Congressional elections, or even 2020, to make their opposition to the Trump agenda heard?

The answer? Not only were Virginians paying attention, they were ready to vote in record numbers. Democratic House candidates ran issues-oriented, substantive campaigns and installed unprecedented get-out-the-vote operations to make sure their voters turned out. About 47 percent of Virginia’s eligible voting population went to the polls, the highest percentage turnout in a gubernatorial year in two decades.

As I write this, Democrats have swept all three statewide seats and picked up a minimum of 15 House seats. The House majority is still in play.

What is still undecided?

Three House of Delegates races — the 28th, 40th, and 94th Districts — are still up in the air. The reasons vary. Voters who cast provisional ballots because, for example, they forgot to bring their driver’s license to the polls, could by November 13 submit acceptable photo ID to their local registration office.

In the 28th District, controversy swirls due to a Registrar’s refusal to count 55 absentee ballots delivered to the registrar’s office by Wednesday, November 8 and Democrats have filed a federal lawsuit to force the Registrar to count these votes.

There are allegations that in “split precincts” in the 28th District, 600+ voters were given the wrong ballots, potentially costing Democrat Joshua Cole, currently trailing Republican Bob Thomas by 82 votes, enough votes to win the election. It is likely all three races will proceed to a recount.

Regardless of whether Democrats reach 51 votes in the House of Delegates, a few things are clear.

First, it is a new day in Richmond. Our 34-member House Democratic Caucus has grown by at least 15 members. No matter what our eventual number is, we will have new influence. New clout. The Republicans ignore us at their peril.

Second, from Medicaid expansion to women’s reproductive rights to environmental issues and more, the General Assembly will finally more closely reflect the values and priorities of the whole of Virginia.

Third, we must continue to focus on ways to increase voter participation. While 47 percent turnout this year is encouraging, according to the Virginia State Board of Election’s statistics for the last 40 years it is still well short of the astonishing 66.5 percent turnout in 1989’s gubernatorial elections and the high-water mark of 83.7 percent in 1992’s Presidential election.

We can reach these numbers again by making it easier to vote in Virginia.

One way is to recognize that more and more Virginians want to and are voting early absentee, and then encourage and better enable that method through legislation and voter education.

The way Virginia’s voting process is currently structured, unless a voter meets a narrow set of criteria that permits him or her to vote early absentee, he or she must have the time and resources to vote during a 13-hour window on a Tuesday.

I have repeatedly introduced legislation in the House of Delegates — and will again in the upcoming session — to provide for no-excuse early absentee voting. Early voting clearly helps broaden participation in our democracy, making it more representative. 47 percent turnout this year is fantastic, but we can do better. It’s time to help more Virginians’ voices be heard.

As for whether we’ll have the 51 votes to make sure that happens, stay tuned…

Rip Sullivan is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from Virginia’s 48th District, which encompasses parts of Arlington and McLean. He practices law in Arlington with Bean, Kinney & Korman, PC.

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