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Editorial: Six different ways to ask the Confederate statue question

Editorial: Six different ways to ask the Confederate statue question

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{byline}{&by1}By The Roanoke Times

Six Virginia localities are voting in November (or now, if you’re an early voter) on whether to take down their Confederate statues.

But they’re not all voting on the same question.

Technically, each of these is a non-binding advisory referendum, but woe be to the county board that doesn’t honor the voters’ wishes. The specific question varies from locality to locality, depending on how the county board of supervisors framed the issue. Will ballot language matter? Let’s take a look.

Halifax County, Tazewell County and Warren County have the most straightforward questions:

Shall Halifax County relocate the Confederate monument from the County courthouse grounds?

Should the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors relocate the Monument of the Confederate Soldier of Tazewell County from the grounds of the Tazewell County Courthouse?

Should the confederate monument located on the Warren County Courthouse lawn be relocated?

Or maybe the question is not so straightforward. Where would the monuments go? A museum? A storage closet? The county dump? Those are very different outcomes. But all that’s to be determined later. Are there some voters who might vote “yes” if they knew the monument was destined for a museum but “no” if they didn’t know where it would wind up — and don’t want to risk a location they’d consider unsuitable, or no location at all? And yes, according to the State Board of Elections, it looks like the question in Warren County will lower-case “confederate.”

In Charles City County, the question is equally straightforward, but also deals with two separate installations. Are there some voters who might want to move one but not the other? They’re out of luck — this is “all or nothing”:

Should the Board of Supervisors of Charles City County remove both the Civil War monument in front of the Old Courthouse and the Civil War memorial inside the Old Courthouse?

In Franklin County, the question about moving the statue is qualified by saying it could be moved to some other place:

Shall the County relocate the Confederate statue from County courthouse grounds to a location of appropriate historical significance?

That, of course, raises the question of what a “location of appropriate historical significance” might be? While Southern courthouses are the typical location for such monuments, is it possible there might be another location that’s even more appropriate? What if you think the monument should be smashed to bits and dumped in the landfill? That’s not an option. Even the most adamant anti-statue voter has to vote for an alternative location “of appropriate historical significance.”

Lunenburg County has the most curious formulation:

Shall the monument honoring the memory of the Lunenburg soldiers and women during the Civil War remain on Lunenburg Courthouse property?

In terms of clever political rhetoric, this is a question that strategists can study for generations to come. This isn’t just about a monument, it’s a monument about “honoring the memory.” How many voters inclined to move the statue will pause when they realize they’re being asked to move something “honoring the memory” of the county’s soldiers? In theory, that’s what all the Confederate statues do, but Lunenburg makes that question explicit. Lunenburg’s ballot question is even gender-inclusive, another clever bit of wordsmithing but one based on a smidge of truth. The statue in question clearly depicts a male soldier. However, the base of the statue does say “our patriotic womanhood was an inspiration.” The statue also says “we fought for the sovereignty of the states” but doesn’t say just how they intended to use that sovereignty. Lunenburg’s ballot language also is interesting because it’s the only one of the six Confederate monument referenda where a “yes” vote is to keep the statue. Everywhere else, it’s “yes” to move the monument and “no” to keep it.

How much will the specific ballot language actually matter? If any of these votes are close, we can argue about that for a long time. But will any of these votes be close?

A poll last month by Hampton University and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found a slight plurality of Virginians favored moving Confederate statues — with 46% in favor of moving them and 42% opposed. That’s historically significant for a state that was home to not one but two capitals of the Confederacy but this isn’t a statewide vote. It’s six specific counties, five of them quite conservative.

Charles City County has a long record of voting for Democrats — it went nearly 61% for Hillary Clinton in 2016, 65.5% for Barack Obama in 2012. The county also has a plurality Black population — 46.5% Black, 41.8% white, 6.5% Native American. If there’s any county that votes to remove its Confederate monuments, you’d think it would be Charles City County. To keep them, one of every six Democratic voters would have to vote in favor of the memorials — and then some.

The other five counties all went heavily for Donald Trump in 2016 and surely will again in 2020. His vote share ranged from 57.1% in Halifax to 57.4% in Lunenburg to 65.6% in Warren to 68.8% in Franklin to 81.7% in Tazewell. It’s not a given that every Democratic voter will vote to move the statues but for argument’s sake, let’s say they do. That helps clarify the difficult math for those on the “move” side.

Can they persuade enough Trump voters to vote both for Trump (who has tweeted “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments”) and then vote for doing the very thing he has decried? The challenge would seem hardest in Tazewell, where slightly more, three of every eight Trump voters, would need to vote in favor of moving the statue.

The historical irony is Tazewell is in Appalachia, which had only a weak affiliation with the actual Confederacy. More irony: None of Franklin’s delegates to the Virginia Secession Convention of 1861 voted in favor of secession. Even after Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, and President Lincoln issued his call for troops, one delegate voted against secession and the other didn’t vote.

If Franklin County votes to keep its Confederate statue in November, its voters will show more attachment to the Confederate cause in 2020 than its elected representatives did in 1861.

The Roanoke Times

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