Virginia’s “Right-to-Work” Amendment: Nothing Has Changed

By: Kelsey Dolin

On November 8th, 2016, Virginians not only cast their ballots for the next president and other elected officials, but also lent their voices to two proposed amendments to the Virginia Constitution. Voters decided against a right-to-work amendment and approved an amendment exempting the spouses of first responders killed in the line of duty from property taxes.

In Virginia, the only issues placed on the ballot statewide are proposed constitutional amendments. An amendment must be passed by the both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. It must then be voted for by a majority of both houses again after an intervening House of Delegates election. The governor has no say in the amendment process. Voters are then given the final say in whether the amendment is approved or denied. If it passes, it is then incorporated into the Virginia Constitution as an amendment.

In 2016, two constitutional amendments appeared on the ballot. The first was rather uncontroversial and passed with nearly 80% approval from voters. It allows the General Assembly to give localities the ability to exempt from property taxes the spouses of first responders killed in the line of duty. However, voters declined to adopt the second proposed amendment, a proposition to add a right-to-work provision to the constitution.

Virginia already had a law forbidding employers from making union membership a condition of employment, commonly known as a right-to-work law. Either potential outcome of the ballot proposition would not have changed the current legal conditions. A “yes” vote on this amendment would have enshrined the right-to-work law in the Virginia Constitution, making it harder to change in the future. Supporters of the amendment claimed it would help attract business to the state because it would eliminate the worry that union membership could become compulsory in the future. Opponents of the law argue that it is bad policy because it allows workers to benefit from bargaining by a union to which they do not contribute dues. Opponents also worked to persuade voters who support right-to-work laws to vote “no” on the amendment, claiming policy-driven amendments should not be included in state constitutions, but should be left to the discretion of the General Assembly, which is the voice of the people.

One criticism of the amendment was that it was unclear to voters and may have caused confusion as to what the outcome of each option would be. This is a common criticism of such ballot initiatives, which voters often see for the first time when they enter the polls. The Virginia Department of Elections did post information about the current law and effect of the proposed amendment on its website, but it is unclear whether voters actually sought out this information before going to vote. State Senator Bryce Reeves remarked “I’m glad it’s not the ACT or the SAT. We’d probably fail that question . . . I’ve read it. I’m like, ‘Golly days!” To assist voters in their choice, organizations on both the Republican and Democratic sides made recommendations in line with their policy goals.  The results suggest that voters may have listened to their respective parties.

The votes seem to have been cast largely along party lines. The votes cast against the amendment and the combined votes cast for pro-union candidates Hillary Clinton and Jill Stein were both roughly two million. The number of votes in favor of the amendment (1.7 million) is just under the vote total for pro-right-to-work candidates Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, and Evan McMullin (1.9 million total). The “no” vote received just above 6,000 more votes than did the two more liberal candidates, but the “yes” vote received nearly 200,000 less votes than did the conservative candidates. This discrepancy could be attributed either to more conservative voters, who generally support right-to-work laws, abstaining from voting on the amendment, or to voters both casting a ballot for a conservative candidate and voting “no” on the right-to-work amendment.

As a result of this vote, nothing in the state will actually change. Virginia will still be a right-to-work state, but the General Assembly can change the law without the need to change the Virginia Constitution.

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