Democracy Initiative hosts elections panel with alum, faculty

Panelists at the
Panelists at the "In Our Hands" discussion. PEERAWUT RUANGSAWASDI / THE FLAT HAT

Wednesday, March 6, the College of William and Mary’s Democracy Initiative, Government Department and the Election Law Program hosted a panel discussion titled “‘In Our Hands’: A Conversation on Elections in America.”

Panel members included Fair Vote Director of Advocacy Brian Cannon ’04, JD ’11, Associate Professor of Law and Election Law Program Co-Director Rebecca Green, Assistant Professor of Government Mackenzie Israel-Trummel, Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky PLLC law partner Jason Torchinsky ’98, J.D. ’01 and Executive Director of UpVote VA Liz White ’04.

Co-chair of the Democracy Initiative and Dean of University Libraries Carrie Lynn Cooper started the event by laying out the initiative’s missions.

“William and Mary has a long history of debate as a strategy for deep learning,” Cooper said. “The ‘Democracy’ pillar of Vision 2026, the university’s strategic plan, affirms our commitment to the freedom of expression on our campus, and our desire to graduate students who are equipped with the skills to speak when they have a dissenting opinion and listen when others in the room have a different point of view.”

Green touched on the reasons why she believed that the title of the conversation is apt to the current environment in the United States.

“First, there is today — and it has historically been — an incredible level of democratic engagement at William and Mary,” Green said. “William and Mary, of course, has played a pivotal role in shaping democracy since the founding. Many of the Founding Fathers came through this way. It’s the site of the first law school in the United States. So in a very real way, the law of democracy emanates from Williamsburg.”

Green added that students at the College are actively engaged in elections.

“Another thing I’m very proud to report is that William and Mary students vote in record numbers,” Green said. “Apparently, William and Mary has the highest number of, perhaps I should say, in 2020, the highest number of registered voters in any school in Virginia. So it’s an incredibly engaged community.”

Green explained the second reason the conversation is apt is because of its timing. One day before the discussion, Virginia participated in “Super Tuesday,” where individuals voted in the presidential primaries for both the Republican and Democratic parties. She also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of former U.S. President Donald Trump, asserting that states could not use the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution to bar him from running.

The panelists engaged in various topics, including presidential primaries and district divisions.

Cannon pointed out his experience in redistricting reform in 2011.

“But what I learned in that process in 2011, is we presented our maps to the General Assembly because they were redistricting at that time,” Cannon said. “And I thought, ‘This is the perfect time to get some sort of reform. Lord knows we could do it.’ Anyways, better than the way we currently do it, where we just let politicians draw their own districts and ensure their reelection and that kind of thing. But we had a divided legislature, which doesn’t happen often in redistricting years. The Democrats control the Senate, the Republicans control the House, and Bob McDonnell was governor.”

Cannon elaborated on what happened after.

“And while Bob McDonnell was not some brave champion of democracy reform writ large, he had said some nice things about, ‘We should probably do our best to curb gerrymandering.’ So, I thought this was the time to get something,” Cannon said. “Probably not everything I would want, but to get something. And instead what we got in Virginia was, the Democrats gerrymandered the state Senate for themselves. The Republicans gerrymandered the state House for themselves, and governor McDonnell vetoed the Democratic plan, but then signed one later, and all was fine for everybody’s reelection campaign.”

After several years of effort, Virginia created an independent redistricting commission in 2020.

Panelists also touched on the topic of polarization.

“I am a huge advocate of political parties and the strength of political parties,” Torchinsky said. “I think that over the last 20 years, the decline in the strength of political parties has caused some of the polarization that we’re seeing today. And I think, frankly, at some of these reform movements that have been the root of the weakening of the parties and higher and more highly polarized sort of nature of politics.”

Torchinsky said that some reforms, such as independent redistricting commissions advocated by White and Cannon, weaken the party system.

“I love Jason, I’ve known him for 20 years. Obviously we disagree on a couple of things. But I really appreciated that he’s here to kind of give you that perspective, because I don’t want it to just be some — reformers make mistakes or that are perhaps there are unintended consequences of reform,” Cannon responded, while doubling down on his support for independent redistricting commissions.

White mostly spoke on her advocacy for ranked-choice voting.

“So you can vote your heart, you can vote for your longshot candidate, or you can just be a terrible pundit and vote for who you think is going to win and be very, very wrong,” White said. ”So, you know, I think a lot of people are really excited about this as a change, as a reform idea for fixing some of the problems that we’re experiencing.”

Israel-Trummel spoke on the importance of political engagement.

“Some of the work that I think is the most, that gives me the most reason for optimism is the research that shows the effects of social protest and social movements,” Israel-Trummel said. “So, social movements have a variety of effects on political society and on society broadly. They can change public opinion by sort of drawing attention to issues, making them more salient. They can mobilize voters, and actually increase participation in [an] election. They can drive opposition to incumbents and increase support for challengers, increasing the number of people in office.”

Attendee Leo Sereni ’24 shared his reaction to the event.

“I like the interdisciplinary [aspect],” Sereni said. “The panel itself is interdisciplinary in multiple ways. There is academics and practitioners. So there’s a range of partisan ideologies. So that was, if anything, what I appreciated from it. I think that talking about different ways people can be involved and just the state of elections right now, it’s not a dimensional issue, it’s a multi dimensional issue.”


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