By Sara Fitzgerald
This fall Virginia voters will finally get the chance to put citizens in the room — and an open one at that — when legislative and congressional districts are redrawn following the 2020 census. Voters will be asked to approve a constitutional amendment that seeks to end partisan gerrymandering by creating a bipartisan commission, made up of citizens and legislators, to draw the maps. A Republican-controlled General Assembly approved the amendment in 2019 and a Democratic-controlled General Assembly followed suit this year. Now the voters will get their chance.
I have worked on this issue for 15 years, since I first served on a state League of Women Voters study committee. That work culminated in 2019, when the General Assembly finally approved the constitutional amendment on first reading. Because of my years of effort, I was very disappointed when, five months ago, some Democratic members reversed their earlier support of the amendment, now that their party was back in power. Most recently, I was disappointed in the July 16, 2020 “Richmond Report” column by Del. Marcus Simon.
Here’s some historical perspective. As the 2011 redistricting approached, reform advocates, including the state League of Women Voters, believed that a constitutional amendment was too big a stretch to accomplish. Rather, with Republicans in control of the House and Democrats in control of the Senate, the time seemed ripe for a bipartisan compromise. Map proposals emerged through a college competition and from a bipartisan citizens advisory committee appointed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.
In the end, it was all for naught. The parties agreed to let the Democrats gerrymander the Senate and the Republicans, the House. At a time when Democratic legislators could have pushed for significant reforms, they were more concerned about picking their voters where they could. Then, when a few Senate seats changed parties, they lost that control anyway.
In the wake of that partisan debacle, reform advocates organized a non-partisan coalition, OneVirginia2021, which committed itself to reforming the process the next time. In 2018, the organization convened a bipartisan committee to draft an amendment that would have created an independent citizens commission.
Democrats, then still in the minority, took the position that the General Assembly would never approve such a commission, and instead Democratic Sens. George Barker and Dick Saslaw proposed a commission similar to the one now embodied in the constitutional amendment, with eight legislative members representing both parties and eight citizen members. In the 2019 session, the Senate approved the amendment, 39-1, and the House, 85-13.
The following November, the Democrats won control of the General Assembly. In the final days of the 2020 session, House Democrats held a closed-door meeting — the kind the amendment would explicitly bar the new commission from holding — and many delegates were pressured to reverse their previous public positions. However, enough House Democrats stuck to their guns that the amendment passed on second reading. Simon references legislation that would have created a non-partisan, independent advisory commission in 2021 (in case the amendment fails) but the Democratic House leadership never scheduled a floor vote on that proposal, suggesting they did not have the votes to pass it. Now voters are asked to believe that if the amendment is defeated, the General Assembly will adopt this approach instead. There is no guarantee that both chambers will do so, since they didn’t do it last January.
In the Senate, two veteran Black senators, Senate president pro tempore Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton, co-sponsored Barker’s amendment bill. Further, Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond sponsored the amendment’s supplemental legislation. The amendment will add language to the Virginia Constitution to ensure that legislative district lines are drawn in accordance with any state law addressing racial and ethnic fairness—as well as the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act. The amendment goes further to require that districts shall provide, “where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.” This would mark the first time, in the Commonwealth’s 400-year history, that civil rights protections would be enshrined in the Constitution.
General Assembly leaders will be able to choose legislators of color to serve as their representatives on the commission, and to nominate persons of color to the pools from which citizen members will be chosen. That is a further way to ensure that Black voices are heard.
Polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of Virginia’s citizens support reform. The amendment is a workable compromise and clearly an improvement over the current system, which lets the party in power choose its voters.
Gerrymandering has gone on in Virginia since 1788, when Patrick Henry first tried to do it to James Madison. After decades of debate, we can’t wait any longer to begin a better chapter.
Sara Fitzgerald has worked on redistricting reform with the League of Women Voters and with OneVirginia2021. The opinions expressed are her own.