Don’t Turn Back Now: Pass Virginia’s Bipartisan Gerrymandering Solution

A wide angle view down the aisle of the Virginia House chambers
House of Representatives chamber in the Virginia State Capitol building.

In a strong display of bipartisan support, a proposed constitutional amendment to create the Virginia Redistricting Commission passed out of the House of Delegates by a wide margin of 83-15 and by the State Senate unanimously in February 2019.

At the time, Republicans maintained a slim majority in both houses of the General Assembly.

Together with strong enabling legislation, the constitutional amendment route is the best option to removing partisanship in the redistricting process. 

February 11 was “crossover day”, the day where all bills that passed the house go to the senate and vice versa. That makes it an important day in the General Assembly because bills that have not passed at least one house are highly unlikely to reach the Governor’s desk.

The Senate passed the amendment (SJ18) and the enabling legislation (SB203). The House just passed their version of the enabling (HB758) which should be identical to SB203. But it doesn't have to be identical. The amendment does have to be identical and the House should move on that soon.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) is working with OneVirginia2021 and local partners to encourage the house to pass the amendment and for the General Assembly to agree on strong enabling legislation. 

While the amendment isn’t perfect, it is nevertheless a major step forward – and should make voters confident since its enactment requires their approval at the ballot box.

On the other hand, pursuing a purely legislative route is risky – it leaves ultimate decision-making in the hands of the State Legislature. 

If history is our guide, the party in power of state government rarely act against their own interests. The legislature will be resistant to real reform if it harms their electoral advantage. 

Virginia is a state that has been plagued by gerrymandering, the process by which politicians abuse the map drawing process to redraw election districts in a way that firms up their own job security and shields themselves from transparency and accountability. 

The previous district lines were so badly gerrymandered along racial lines that they were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That’s why an amendment to the constitution is the right strategy for Virginia.

The constitutional amendment creates a ‘hybrid commission’ of 16 members, comprised of eight legislators and eight citizens, evenly balanced by party affiliation. There are added protections for racial and ethnic communities, and the system will be opened up to increased public input and transparency compared to the previous system. 

Despite these improvements, news reports indicate that some Democratic lawmakers – now enjoying a majority in Virginia state government – are having second thoughts about redistricting reform. Some are hesitant to give up the power to gerrymander districts to their own advantage, despite the fact that many of them voted to pass the very same proposal when they were the minority party.

Others have expressed concerns about the Supreme Court of Virginia drawing the maps if the commission is deadlocked and that the commission may not prioritize racial equity throughout its process. The history of the state makes these concerns understandable, but those concerns can be addressed in complimentary enacting legislation. 

Democrats should place public opinion over partisanship. A December 2019 survey by Christopher Newport University shows that voters strongly support the second passage of the redistricting reform constitutional amendment, by a 70%-15% margin. 

The stakes are high. If the amendment fails to pass this General Assembly session, politicians will retain control of the redistricting process for the foreseeable future following the 2020 Census count.

Voters nationwide overwhelmingly prefer congressional districts with no partisan bias, even if it means fewer seats for their own party, and this sentiment is equally strong across partisan lines.

2019 poll commissioned by CLC of likely 2020 general election voters found strong opposition to gerrymandering with broad, bipartisan support for the creation of independent redistricting commissions. Notedly, 65% of voters surveyed would prefer congressional districts with no partisan bias, even if it means less seats for their own party.

This makes sense. People understand that majorities in state houses and in Congress come and go. Today, it may be your party reaping the benefits of increasingly sophisticated computer modeling to manipulate districts and hold onto power.

You might be fine with your elected officials ignoring voters in your district that hold opposing views. However, it won’t last forever.

As soon as the gavel is passed to the other party, you will notice some important changes. The feeling of being “robbed of your voice” on the issues that matter and being unrepresented settles in for the next decade. This has been the status quo in Virginia.

Let’s turn the page and shoot for something better in 2020-2030.

Virginia Democrats should listen to voter attitudes about partisan fairness in redistricting. They should resist their instincts for self-protection and improve democracy statewide. They should place principles over partisanship and pass Virginia’s bipartisan gerrymandering solution.

Corey handles media relations for the CLC voting rights and redistricting teams and creates online content. Follow @cgfromdc on Twitter
Christopher is a senior legal counsel at CLC.
Designing Independent Redistricting Commissions