Yesterday saw a small revolution in Virginia politics. For the last few years, the Democrats have controlled both the Governor’s chair and both houses of the state legislature. With that alignment, they repealed the state’s death penalty on an almost (but not quite) straight party line vote. But with yesterday’s election, things have changed. Is there now a way to restore the death penalty?
I would think so.
Republicans now control all three statewide offices (Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General) and, by a narrow margin (51-49), the lower house of the state legislature, called the House of Delegates. The Democrats continue to control the Senate, 21-19, however. As long as they do, a direct death penalty reinstatement bill probably cannot pass. Unmovable partisan ideology is unlikely to allow it.
But something else probably could pass: A bill establishing a binding statewide referendum on whether to reinstate the death penalty statute.
It’s one thing to have one’s own principles (or at least attitudes) against capital punishment. It’s another to take the position that your views should run the show over the will of the people, which should not even be heard. Indeed, I cannot think of a single principled argument against letting Virginians decide this issue for themselves. Twice in the last ten years, Californians have done so, largely at the behest of death penalty opponents. Why shouldn’t Virginians have the same opportunity?
The death penalty is, at the end of the day (and pretty much at the beginning of the day while we’re at it) a moral issue. That is precisely the kind of question where the values of the voters ought most directly to be controlling. But even if it were primarily a different sort of question — for example, whether even if morally justified, it’s worth the cost and delay — why shouldn’t those questions likewise be settled by the people who will have to pay the costs and tolerate the delays?
The hot button issue in the Virginia races was whether school policy and subject matter should be controlled by the “experts” on school boards or by citizens and parents. The Democratic nominee, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, lost the election (to my and others’ way of thinking) when, astonishingly, he said in a debate that education experts, not parents, should decide what gets taught in schools. Up to then, McAuliffe had been leading. After that, it was all downhill.
There’s a lesson there, one that will resonate with the legislature: On the big questions, let the people decide.
In Virginia, the death penalty hits home. This is not only because Virginia has been stung with the same murder surge that has afflicted the country as a whole. It’s because Virginians were the main targets of the Beltway sniper, whose horrifying escapade of random, for-sport murders still lives in the memories of Commonwealth voters. He was executed. A future Virginia jury should have the same right to direct the execution of the next one.
So the stage is set. Let the new legislature adopt, and the new Governor sign, a bill establishing a binding vote of the people whether to restore capital punishment.
P.S. I’ll be happy to bet $1000 here and now how such a vote would come out. Any takers?