By Allison Brown and Wendy Frieman
This year, Virginia voters finally have the power to end gerrymandering. Constitutional Amendment Number 1 is a crucial issue on the ballot this fall – it establishes a citizen-led commission that will draw district lines for future elections. We need this change urgently — currently there are towns in Virginia broken into multiple districts designed to protect incumbents, with one side of the street voting for one unopposed candidate and the other side of the street voting for another.
Timing is of the essence here. Redistricting happens only once every 10 years, immediately following the Census. The Virginia Constitution currently gives the power to draw lines to the General Assembly alone. That means that, absent the amendment, the legislators themselves will draw the lines that will determine state and Congressional representatives for the next ten years. If the constitutional amendment passes, it will create, instead, a bipartisan commission to draw Virginia’s electoral maps; the commission will include both citizens and politicians. The amendment guarantees that the redistricting process will be done transparently, with open meetings and public records — protections for the public that have been completely absent from past district drawing.
The amendment also enshrines specific voting-rights protection for persons of color into the Virginia Constitution for the first time, incorporating all federal and state laws and court decisions regarding racial and ethnic fairness.
The transparency guaranteed in the new process also will assist communities of color in ensuring strong representation in the state legislature and in Congress.
Indeed, past racial gerrymandering in Virginia has disenfranchised African American voters by packing persons of color into racially gerrymandered districts, thereby diminishing the strength and importance of the community’s vote. That is, in the past, Virginia’s legislature has taken districts that were already electing representatives of color and packed more voters of color into them. When legislators draw districts and pack minority voters in at 50 percent levels rather than (for example) 30 percent levels, minority voters lose their potential influence in neighboring districts, leaving those districts overwhelmingly White. And then voters of color lose their political voice elsewhere in the state, diluting their impact on legislation. In fact, courts have struck down GOP-drawn maps, crafted after the 2010 Census, that undercut minority voting clout.
If the amendment passes, majorities of members of both parties on the commission would have to agree to the new districts, which would make old-fashioned closed door, partisan gerrymandering a thing of the past. The amendment would authorize the General Assembly to pass or reject the commission’s lines, but it could not change them.
If the commission deadlocks, the map-drawing would be turned over to the state Supreme Court, which in many states is the designated arbiter when a legislature deadlocks. In most cases, a court chooses to turn the process over to a special master with expertise on the issue. While members of the state Supreme Court are in fact appointed by politicians, politically appointed judges in other states have shown a willingness to be nonpartisan in districting endeavors — judges tend to have an institutional bias to stay out of politics.
The proposed amendment might not be perfect. But are politicians who have benefited from this broken system likely to create and pass a better one? Virginia has no process that lets citizens put constitutional amendments on the ballot; this has to be done by the legislators who benefit from the status quo. The other states with fully nonpartisan redistricting commissions did so through citizen initiatives, not by waiting for incumbent politicians to work against their own interests.
The nonpartisan State League of Women Voters has endorsed Amendment 1, with the organization’s president, Deb Wake, saying that “it is past time to bring citizens into the redistricting process and stop voter suppression.” For more information, see lwv-va.org/redistricting.
Join the League of Women Voters of Virginia, the Washington Post Editorial Board, and other non-partisan organizations across the state in saying Yes to Amendment 1. National experts have weighed in, too. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s director, Sam Wang, has devoted his career to nonpartisan analysis intended to eliminate partisan gerrymandering across America. He said Amendment 1 would “set an example for the nation in how to draw fair districts.”
Today, partisan gerrymandering — the practice of manipulating district lines to gain an advantage for one party — is perfectly legal in Virginia. It’s time to end this practice.
Allison Brown and Wendy Frieman are Co-Presidents of the League of Women Voters Falls Church
By Marcus Simon
Virginians deserve the opportunity to choose their representatives in the legislature through free and fair elections. For years, though, conservative politicians have done everything they can to consolidate power to ensure their reelections. By deliberately drawing district maps to dilute the power of communities of color in Virginia, a small minority of White, male elites extended their power by limiting the voting power of the rest of us. The history of gerrymandering has always been about much more than partisanship.
This November, there will be a constitutional amendment on the ballot — Amendment 1 — that will, once again, allow politicians and political parties to pick their voters instead of voters picking their representatives.
If approved by voters, this deeply flawed Amendment would shift the power to redraw congressional and state legislative districts from the 140 member General Assembly to a 16 member commission composed of legislators and a hand picked group of citizens.
While my good friends from the Yes side argue this amendment gives citizens a seat at the table, House and Senate party leaders would still choose all of the commission members, erasing any veneer of independence on the commission and locking in the power of a small group of politicians to draw political district boundaries.
If the commission is able to create the new district maps (any two legislators from the House or any two from the Senate can veto the maps), they would be sent to the General Assembly for a simple up or down vote with no additional changes or amendments. If the General Assembly rejects this map, the redistricting commission would draw a second map to be voted on. If the second map was rejected, or if the commission is unable to come up with a map the Virginia Supreme Court (whose members are appointed by the General Assembly — see where this is going?) would make the final determination of district boundaries without any public review.
What we need now are fair, transparent districting maps created by a commission of concerned voters and experts to ensure that communities of color are protected and everyone can make their voice heard equally. We need a process that protects racial and language minority groups, requires that districts be compact and contiguous, and does not favor one political party over another. Voters should be able to choose their politicians through a fair and non-partisan redistricting commission, instead of politicians using the illusion of a citizen led redistricting committee to choose their voters. Politicians should not be involved in this process. We need to give power back to the people, not give more to those already in power. It’s past time.
Republicans support this Amendment because they think it will help them maintain their power. This amendment itself offers no ban on gerrymandering and no guarantee of minority representation in the map-drawing process. Instead, the amendment relies upon the protections put into law by HB1255, legislation that passed the General Assembly without a single Republican vote in favor. While legislation is a strong first step, Virginians deserve to enshrine these protections in the constitution. Amendment 1 doesn’t do that.
The consequences are enormous — if passed, gerrymandering will essentially be written into the Constitution of Virginia.
Since drafting the Virginia Constitution, White lawmakers have restricted the voting ability of Black people and carved out state legislative maps to ensure they protected incumbents they liked, while pitting their rivals against one another in the same districts. What we need now are redistricting maps created by a commission of non-partisan experts to ensure that communities of color are fully protected, that politics are taken out of the process, that districts are compact and contiguous, and that there is transparency every step of the way. This is how Virginians should be able to choose their representatives — through a fair election process based on equitable maps drawn by an independent and non-partisan redistricting commission.
The question is not whether we need to change the way we do redistricting — we absolutely do. The change we choose matters. With Amendment 1, legislators are still entrenched in the system, making it impossible to have an independent or non-partisan process. The people of Virginia, not our legislators, should decide who represents us. We need to level the playing field and create competitive districts that give voters genuine choice at the ballot box. It is worth the wait to pass an amendment that is fair to all of us, not a select few who hope to gain political capital at the expense of many.
We need to vote NO on this partisan political power grab and ensure that the power stays with the people.
For more information on how you can spread the word about this flawed Amendment, I encourage you to visit www.fairdistrictsva.com.
Delegate Marcus Simon represents the 53rd District in Virginia, which includes the City of Falls Church