Ballots in Virginia generally stay on the simple side. There’s no raft of minor-party candidates, courtesy of strict ballot-access laws, and no long list of referenda and initiatives like California’s 17 statewide propositions. But the Commonwealth’s elections do feature one enduring oddity: constitutional amendments that leave you wondering why they must exist.
Over more than 20 years of voting here, I’ve seen these constitutional questions fall into two categories: grandstanding exercises in cementing existing laws, or unavoidable workarounds for the constitution’s micro-managing minutiae.
This year’s two amendments ably represent each genre.
Question 1 would enshrine “right to work” provisions–as in, a union can’t make you pay its dues if it represents workers in your workplace–that have spent decades facing no serious challenge.
This Republican-backed measure is a fundamentally unserious provision, as Brian Schoeneman ably argues at the conservative blog Bearing Drift: “There is no need to lard up the Virginia Constitution with policy provisions that are not fundamental to the running of the government.”
On the other hand, it’s arguably no worse than the right to hunt and fish that is now enshrined in the constitution. (I voted against that amendment but gladly voted for its sponsor–Democratic state senator Creigh Deeds, who has since endured more than any of us should have to bear–when he ran for governor and lost in 2009.) And it doesn’t stain the state’s honor like 2006’s gay-marriage ban, which statehouse Republicans apparently want to keep out of spite even after the Supreme Court has consigned it to oblivion.
Question 2 would allow localities to grant a property-tax exemption to the surviving, not-remarried spouses of police, firefighters and other first responders killed in the line of duty. That seems both an eminently fair thing to do and something that shouldn’t require a constitutional amendment to enact.
But the Virginia constitution is nothing if not specific. It nears 25,000 words–compared to that, Apple’s roughly 6,700-word iTunes Store terms-of-service document represents Hemingway-esque brevity–and refuses few invitations to plunge into the weeds. Sample quotes:
“town” means any existing town or an incorporated community within one or more counties which became a town before noon, July one, nineteen hundred seventy-one, as provided by law or which has within defined boundaries a population of 1,000 or more and which has become a town as provided by law
No rights of a city or town in and to its waterfront, wharf property, public landings, wharves, docks, streets, avenues, parks, bridges, or other public places, or its gas, water, or electric works shall be sold except by an ordinance or resolution passed by a recorded affirmative vote of three-fourths of all members elected to the governing body.
Seriously, what justifies that kind of a control-freak constitution?
We’re nearing 50 years since the adoption of a new constitution in 1971–an overdue remedy for 1902’s racist relic. I would like to see the state start from scratch and then stick to the basics. But when I look at the nonsense that goes on in Richmond, I have zero trust in the ability of the folks there to get this right. My reluctant hope is that we have many more years of silly constitutional questions.
My advice under those conditions: Keep voting no unless the amendment in question would allow something that normal constitutions don’t forbid in the first place–in which case, vote yes and feel dirty afterwards.