What do Democrats in the House of Delegates not understand about Virginians’ strong desire for redistricting reform? Are we seeing, in efforts by some Democrats in Richmond to kill redistricting reform, the party’s true colors? Was their strong support over the past decade for reform nothing more than cynical ploy to play voters?
One has to wonder.
In early January, Mason Dixon Polling released the results of a survey completed in December that showed wide support for an amendment to the Virginia Constitution to eliminate partisan redistricting in the commonwealth. Across the state, 72 percent of respondents favored amending the constitution to have redrawing of legislative districts carried out by a nonpartisan commission comprised of vetted private citizens and legislators. The strongest support for the proposal came from Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond, where 78 percent, 76 percent and 71 percent of respondents, respectively, favored the approach.
And yet House Democrats continue to dawdle, with some delegates actively trying to kill the baby in the crib.
Democrats were shut out of power in the House in the elections of 1999 and endured two decades in the minority, finally regaining control just this year. In 2011, when the General Assembly undertook redistricting after the 2020 U.S. Census, Republicans in the House drew new districts that increased their ranks to a veto-proof 67 seats. Democrats were at their lowest point in Virginia history.
In court battles that continued in state and federal courtrooms for much of the 2010s, Democrats and their supporters tried to have the 2011 House redistricting declared an illegal gerrymander based on race. Specifically, they alleged Republicans had created super-majority-minority districts in order to make neighboring districts super-safe for their candidates.
Eventually, after two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, they won that battle, and the districts in question were redrawn, contributing to Democrats’ stunning performances in the 2017 and 2019 House elections.
In the wake of the 2011 racial gerrymander, concerned Virginians on both sides of the political aisle formed OneVirginia2021 to work for reform of the process. Its initial co-chairmen were former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, and former Del. Shannon Valentine, a Lynchburg Democrat. The group, under the leadership of Executive Director Brian Cannon, traversed the commonwealth from Northern Virginia to Southside, from Tidewater and the Eastern Shore to the Far Southwest, making the case that partisan redistricting was toxic to democracy and that it was time for nonpartisan redistricting in the state.
Finally, in the 2019 Assembly session, a constitutional amendment emerged from the legislative hopper that garnered overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House of Delegates and state Senate. Under the amendment, a commission of equal numbers of private citizens and legislators appointed by their respective chambers would draw new state and federal legislative districts. The recommended maps would have to receive a super-majority of commission members; the Assembly could only vote to accept or reject — not amend — the maps; and the governor would be cut out of the process. If the Assembly couldn’t agree on maps after three attempts, the final say would rest with the justices of the Virginia Supreme Court.
Virginia requires that after an election of the full Assembly — which occurred in November 2019 — the text of the amendment be re-adopted with absolutely no changes before being sent to the voters in the next general election. And all indications are that Virginians would approve the amendment by a huge margin.
Whether we get that chance is now a big question.
Sens. Louise Lucas, Mamie Locke and Jennifer McClellan have played key roles in the upper chamber by pushing through accompanying legislation that would ensure diversity on the redistricting commission, prohibit gerrymandering and establish clear, nonpartisan criteria for the Virginia Supreme Court to follow. We would add — not that it should make a difference — that all three are African American and Lucas is the first woman and first black elected president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate. Under their leadership, the Senate is on record as strongly supporting the amendment, as currently written.
In the House, things are much different. Deep divisions between House and Senate Democrats could doom reform efforts altogether. Some delegates, now that there party is back in power, want to retain the ability to do unto Republicans as was done unto them for 20 years. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus contend minority rights aren’t protected enough. Others fear “Republican justices” on the high court would put partisan interests over the requirements of the Virginia Constitution.
To which we have only this say: Virginians want redistricting reform, and they want it now. Democrats promised in 2017 and 2019 they would be agents of reform, putting the interests of the commonwealth ahead of party interests. Live up to your word, ladies and gentlemen, or face the voters’ wrath.