By Brian Cannon
Six years ago, our parent organization, OneVirginia2021, embarked on a mission to reform the long-broken redistricting system in Virginia. This year, over 2.7 million Virginians joined this mission by approving Amendment 1.
The approval ballot referendum is historic for several reasons.
First, the new process ends partisan gerrymandering by ensuring that legislative district lines are drawn fairly and do not favor one party over the other. One party does not have unilateral control over the process.
Next, it will be led by citizens. Politicians will no longer have free rein to choose whoever they want to represent. Not only will citizens be part of this process for the first time in our history, but a citizen will also serve as chair of the commission itself.
Third, historic voting rights protections for minority communities will be added to the Virginia Constitution for the first time. In fact, Justin Levitt, a former Obama administration Justice Department official, said that the commission “requires adherence to the Voting Rights Act … and then goes beyond.”
Further, total transparency is required. Instead of shady backroom deals, public meetings will be held across Virginia, with all data and notes from the meetings being completely open to the public.
Finally, Virginia will become the first Southern state to shift responsibility for redistricting from the legislature to a bipartisan commission.
The process by which this came about should also not be overlooked. Because Virginia requires constitutional amendments to pass through both legislative chambers in two consecutive years, the process to get this on the ballot itself is far more difficult than most other states.
All told, the commission created by this referendum’s approval is the single most significant redistricting reform package ever to pass through a legislature, without the threat of a citizens initiative, in American history.
From the start, this movement has been about putting the voices of citizens above politicians and political parties. This month, Virginia voters spoke loud and clear in approving Amendment 1.
In creating a bipartisan redistricting commission, they said they want a seat at the table when district lines are drawn next year and beyond. They said they want a transparent redistricting process. They want civil rights protections to be added to the state constitution for the very first time. And they said that they want to end partisan gerrymandering in Virginia once and for all.
What’s more, in the days following the victory at the ballot box, the General Assembly approved a state budget that includes additional provisions to enhance the commission’s work next year and beyond.
These “enabling statutes” include regulations banning career politicians and/or political campaign workers/staffers and/or relatives from serving as citizen commissioners. The commission will also be required to accurately reflect the “racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity” of the Commonwealth as well. Further, the budget includes strict rules to follow in the unlikely event of a gridlocked commission. All told, this took a great commission and made it even better.
Now that the referendum has been approved, the question our organization gets most often is “what’s next?” And the answer is simple: now that a redistricting commission is being formed, Virginia’s citizens must be the ones to ensure that the commission’s work is successful.
Anyone who wants the redistricting process to be fairer, transparent and more equitable should remain engaged at this critical moment. Winning on Election Day was never the goal — the goal has always been to produce fairer district maps.
Citizen watchdogs are vital to making sure this happens. Whether it means attending the public meetings of the commission to submitting comments and engaging with the members and staff to serving as a citizen commissioner themselves, in many ways the hardest work is just beginning. We encourage anyone and everyone to remain engaged.
Finally, we also want to acknowledge that getting to this point has been a long process, and there have been many spirited conversations and debates surrounding the commission — even among those who have long supported reforming Virginia’s broken redistricting practices. We know that there are some who voted “no” on the ballot measure.
These discussions have made the amendment and accompanying enabling legislation even stronger, and we are at a historically positive place for anyone who wants to see Virginia’s redistricting commission be successful in its work. In the end, we all want to make redistricting more public, transparent and equitable.
So whether you were part of the 66 percent of Virginians who voted “yes” on Amendment 1, or the 34 percent who voted “no,” our campaign knows that we all want the same thing: to make redistricting more public, transparent and equitable. We remain ready to work together.
Brian Cannon is the executive director of Fair Maps VA