In the closing days of the session that has been marked by historic firsts and transformative changes, the General Assembly took another step that may if approved by the voters put Virginia into the leadership of democratic government. The General Assembly passed for the second time as required for constitutional amendments a proposed amendment establishing a Virginia Redistricting Commission. The proposed amendment will be on the ballot in November for the voters in the Commonwealth to decide if it should be added to the Constitution. The most commonly expressed purpose of the amendment is “to have voters choose their elected representatives rather than to have elected officials choose their voters.” Said another way, its purpose is to get rid of gerrymandering.
I believe it is accurate to say that Virginia will, if the amendment is approved by the voters, be the first state to take such a giant step to get partisan politics out of its redistricting without being required to by court decision or ballot initiative. The partisan grip of one party over the redistricting process has dictated the legislative outcome of so many issues over the decades first by Democrats and more recently in the last two decades by Republicans. This abuse of political power increased in the public mind the need for a change in the process of drawing legislative boundary lines.
The old way of doing business also resulted in overt racial discrimination in the business of government. The new amendment addresses that concern directly: Every electoral district shall be drawn in accordance with the requirements of federal and state laws that address racial and ethnic fairness, including the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, and judicial decisions interpreting such laws. Districts shall provide, where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.
A unique circumstance brought about what the New York Times described as “a blue-moon step…to largely strip themselves of the power to draw new political maps next year.” When the amendment was first proposed Democrats were in the minority and campaigned aggressively for redistricting reform as it presented a possible avenue for gaining additional legislative seats. Republicans who were suffering decline in political power having lost several elections saw their dominance slipping away. Both parties apparently saw the amendment to their advantage as it passed both houses of the General Assembly overwhelmingly last year. The intervening election resulted in a shift of power as the General Assembly turned from red to blue. No longer do many Democrats feel the need for protection; Republicans no doubt fear Democratically-controlled redistricting when the new census numbers come available. Some in the Democratic majority offered a different approach to the amendment by proposing to redistrict in 2021 with a promise that independent redistricting would be considered for the next decade.
Establishing a fairer way to redistrict has been one of my goals from the time I introduced a bill on the subject in 1982. While my vote to support the amendment in the face of intense lobbying against it has disappointed some people, I remain true to my belief that partisanship needs to be removed as the controlling factor in drawing legislative lines. Ultimately, however, the people will decide the outcome in the election in November.