The Second Casino Referendum: Anti-Democratic or Normal Procedure?

On November 2, 2021, Richmonders voted on a referendum to allow for a Casino to be established in the Southside. After spirited campaigning from both sides, 51% opposed the casino. 

Many people from all sides felt that misinformation may have been present to sway people’s votes. After this referendum, certain councilmembers in particular were disheartened, and despite the majority of the city opposing it, continued to push the development. Two months later, the city council meeting on January 24, 2022 reintroduced new items to be voted on:

  • Item 38. 2022-014. “To authorize the Chief Administrative Officer, for and on behalf of the City of Richmond, to execute a Resort Casino Host Community Agreement between the City of Richmond and RVA Entertainment Holdings, LLC, for the purpose of facilitating the development of a resort casino project in the city of Richmond.
  • Item 39. 2022-015. To authorize the Chief Administrative Officer, for and on behalf of the City of Richmond, to execute a Community Support Agreement among City of Richmond, Casino Owner, Casino Manager and Casino Developer between the City of Richmond, RVA Entertainment Holdings, LLC, Richmond VA Management, LLC, and Richmond VA Development, LLC, for the purpose of facilitating the fulfillment of certain negotiated community benefits in connection with the development of a resort casino project in the city of Richmond.
  •  Item 42. Res 2022-R003. To select RVA Entertainment Holdings, LLC, as the City’s preferred casino gaming operator to operate a casino gaming establishment located at 2001 Walmsley Boulevard and 4700 Trenton Avenue and to provide for the requisite referendum thereon pursuant to Va. Code § 58.1-4123.

These items would be approved to then have a second referendum be given to the people this year on November 8. The previous result of the first referendum is essentially scrapped for whatever the new outcome will be in the coming months.

Different arguments have been pushed on both sides for why this re-referendum is fair or not. Is this anti-democratic and voter suppression, as some have argued? Let us explore different arguments for the second referendum and the general expectations people hold on democratic voting.

Rampant Misinformation – a valid reason to null a result and vote again?

Both sides of the casino issue argue that many others are misinformed about the actual facts of the case in front of them. One such example is whether the companies involved in the project are black-owned, or whether they are still under larger corporations that are not, and so forth. According to one public comment at the January 24 city council meeting, the first referendum was from people “fed by lies.” 

Has this been a valid reason before? Looking at past or attempted second referendums

Voter misinformation is a worrying issue across all votes and elections, not just with the casino here in Richmond. Given how prevalent it is in nearly every decision, has it been enough of a reason to warrant second referendums in the past?

Brexit

By far the most publicized example of arguments for a second referendum, Brexit is an example of the protesting of misinformation and even of foreign interference failing to garner a re-referendum. With the December 2021 election in Britain, many believed the chances of a second referendum to be completely dashed, and as of now, the results of the first referendum have been acted upon. 

Other European nations

Other nations have achieved second referendums within the following year of a result, similar to the casino referendum. Examples are Ireland’s Treaty of Nice and Lisbon Treaty, and Denmark’s Maastricht Treaty.

Common Thread – Second referendums pass when legislative bodies are unhappy with the original results

Why is it that some second referendums go through while others do not? When we go back to the Brexit situation, all hopes for a second referendum were lost when the new elected members of government came into office. These politicians were largely of the political leanings that supported the original decision and even made their campaign emphasize their commitment to upholding the results. It is almost obvious that for the second referendums that immediately followed the first, the legislative bodies were highly motivated to hold another vote to achieve a different result. As such, it is important to recognize that the opinions and desires of a legislative body are essential to getting a second referendum pushed, even more important than the general body’s opinions.

To what extent must elected officials totally represent their constituencies?

Given that the legislative body serves the most critical role in deciding if a second referendum will go through, should we be critical when their opinions do not match the constituency that they serve? 

We can already see that pushing for a second referendum is benefitting the minority more so than the majority result, but it also seems more worrying when an elected member does not represent the wishes of their constituency. More specifically to the issue of the casino in Richmond, certain council members recognized that their district did not vote in favor for the casino. One council member stated “At the end of the day, my district did not support the project. I get that.” Meanwhile other council members seemed to express a degree of pride when their constituents were in favor of the casino and as such the members voted for the second referendum. There is an awareness of the city council that voting for the second referendum when one’s constituents voted No for the casino and are against the second referendum is somewhat controversial. 

Another statement made by a council member to defend why they will be voting for the second referendum despite their district’s wishes is that as elected officials, they “routinely try things multiple times,” citing how they go back to the general assembly multiple times to get something passed. They “do not give up” in order to “do what you ask me to.” That seems to be a vastly different scenario, as their district is opposed to the multiple tries given for the casino. Unlike the given scenario in which repeated efforts are made to push the wishes of the constituency, they are pushing in opposition to what the majority demand.

Is a second referendum against our intuitions on democracy? Is this voter suppression?

The public comments that opposed the casino and voted as such on the referendum were deeply frustrated with the items being put up to allow for a second referendum. Many of them called it “anti-democratic” and “voter suppression.” What sentiments make it seem that the second referendum is proof of such things?

When Nicky Morgan, a British politician who used to serve in different positions , was asked about her stance on a second referendum on Brexit, she stated “Any referendum cuts right across the representative democracy we have in this country. Many people feel that now that they have voted, their elected parliamentary representative should not exercise their own judgment on this issue but simply act as instructed by their local electorate.” This intuitively speaks to the seemingly anti-democratic nature of a second referendum. When a majority of voters choose a certain decision, the system demands it to be done. While a second referendum is still a popular vote, it still cannot be denied that what the majority had previously voted for will not be pursued. 

It also may seem anti-democratic how powerful the legislative/elected body are in swaying these referendum decisions, as opposed to the general public. The nature of a referendum is so valued due to it being a mechanism that is most like a direct democracy in comparison to the representative democracy we have today. And yet, these procedures of second referendums only demonstrate yet again that elected representatives have the most power, even when they no longer represent those who elected them in.

Voter suppression can be argued in a more abstract sense, possibly. The term is mostly used to discuss more tangible instances of voters being barred from voting itself, such as with literacy tests, forcing those still on line to not get their votes in, and so on. The case of this second referendum is more so the notion that the votes of the majority have been suppressed and disregarded from the first referendum. 

What does this all mean?

Ultimately, it is still the duty of Richmond residents to inform themselves on the issue at hand, and go vote their conscience this coming election. However, it is important to be critical of these procedures. Events like these may make one reflect on their city council member and the relationship they have with their constituents. In the long run, it should not be the norm that the votes of the majority are disregarded by the choice of representatives who, by definition, are acting on a minority position. As member of the general public, it is important that we stay critical of these occurrences and hold onto the power we hold in the democratic system.

Sources

Atikcan, Ece Özlem. “Asking the Public Twice: Why Do Voters Change Their Minds in Second Referendums on EU Treaties?” EUROPP, 19 Oct. 2015, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2015/10/19/asking-the-public-twice-why-do-voters-change-their-minds-in-second-referendums-on-eu-treaties/.

“Infographic: A Short History of Second Referendums on Europe.” Statista Infographics, https://www.statista.com/chart/16479/referendums-on-europe-that-were-put-to-a-second-vote/.

Morgan, Nicky. “Why a Second Referendum Is Unwise.” The Economist, Jan. 2019. The Economist, https://www.economist.com/open-future/2019/01/14/why-a-second-referendum-is-unwise.

Richmond City Council Meeting. 2022, https://richmondva.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=1&clip_id=2865.

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