November 15, 2023

Why Rhode Island Didn't Vote For George Washington

The first United States Presidential Election (December 1788-January 1789) is remembered for 'unanimously' electing George Washington as our first President. While that is technically true, three of the thirteen states did not participate in the election at all—New York, North Carolina and that bastion of New England quirkiness, Rhode Island. Why? (you might ask). Well, New York couldn't get its act together in time to send a slate of electors to the Electoral College. And both North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the U.S. Constitution. So, technically, they were not part of the new government and were floating out there on their own.

The battle to ratify the Constitution was extremely divisive—pitting Federalists (or Cosmopolitans) against Anti-Federalists (or Localists). The Anti-Federalists were suspicious of the centralized authority in the new federal government—and also resented being pressured into ratification without the amendments they deemed essential (what ultimately became the Bill of Rights).

Between 1787 and 1790, the Rhode Island legislature rejected the Constitution eleven times. Things got so bad, the state was nicknamed "Rogue Island". The state didn't even send a delegation to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In addition to their general dislike for a central government, they also wanted to continue printing their own paper money (the Rhode Island Pound). Ultimately, the legislature gave in after the new United States threatened an embargo against the state for holding out on ratification. But, because of the delay, they missed out on the first Presidential election.

Rhode Island has continued its contrarian ways—even until recently. It took the legislature 101 years—until 2013—to ratify the 17th amendment (allowing for direct election of Senators). They also rejected the 16th (income tax) and 18th (Prohibition) amendments. They may be small, but they are feisty! 

November 2, 2023

Virginia: A Litmus Test For 2024

This coming Tuesday, the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia will vote for members of both houses of their state legislature. After moving toward Democratic party dominance in the recent past, Virginia is now edging toward 'purple' status. The GOP currently holds sway (narrowly) in the House of Delegates and also enjoys the Governorship with Glenn Youngkin. Democrats control the Senate.

Both parties are essentially 'focus-group testing' their 2024 messaging in Virginia—the economy, immigration, and the culture wars on the Republican side and (basically) abortion on the Democratic side. In 2022, abortion rights (along with a litany of 'not-ready-for-prime-time' Republican candidates) turned what looked like a Red Wave into a crimson trickle. The GOP garnered a razor-thin margin in the U.S. House of Representatives and failed to take back the U.S. Senate.

But even more important than the issues this year, Virginia will be the first test of whether Republicans have solved their "early-voting" problem. The pandemic-induced avalanche of early voting in 2020 may have been the key factor in the Joe Biden victory over Donald Trump. Democrats had fine-tuned their voter ID and turnout machine explicitly for the new reality of non-traditional voting. It worked brilliantly. Republicans essentially ignored the new electoral landscape and got their hats handed to them. 

Republicans have supposedly learned their lesson—and have ramped up their voter mobilization efforts in some key swing states ahead of 2024. But have they done enough to turn the tide? Virginia may offer an early indication of whether they have or not.