On Nov. 5, Virginians will head to the polls to fill hundreds of local offices, decide dozens of local referendums and bond issues and elect all 140 members of the General Assembly — 100 members of the House of Delegates and 40 members of the state Senate.
But there’s one issue that voters won’t be specifically voting on but will be underlying each race for the Assembly: the fate of redistricting reform in the commonwealth. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
In the 2019 Assembly session, Democrats and Republicans came together in historic fashion to craft a bipartisan redistricting reform plan. As an amendment to the state constitution, the same legislation — word for word and comma for comma — must be passed by a new Assembly, one created by an election in which all 140 seats are up for grabs as they are Nov. 5, before it can go to voters for their approval at the next general election, that being the November 2020 election.
But here’s the catch: Republicans currently hold razor-thin, two-seat majorities in the Senate and House. Polling by several highly reputable organizations, including the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University — indicate Democrats stand very good chances to take control of the House and possibly even the Senate. In the 2017 elections for the House of Delegates, Democrats erased a 2-to-1 GOP advantage in an electoral tsunami no one saw coming.
Democrats have not controlled the House in 20 years. Republicans used their control of the all-important chamber, where all state spending bills must originate, to advance their party’s political and policy agendas. And Democrats, after two decades in the wilderness, want that power back.
Because Virginia currently utilizes partisan redistricting to redraw legislative lines after each 10-year U.S. Census, meaning that each chamber of the Assembly draws its own districts, Republicans, especially those in the House, used their dominance to draw districts favorable to their members and designed to make them as friendly toward Republicans as possible.
Let’s be clear: That practice is perfectly fine and perfectly legal under the Virginia Constitution.
First, federal courts determined the last House of Delegates redistricting in 2011 was an illegal racial gerrymander in which African American and other minority voters were packed into districts to super-majority minority districts in order create other districts that were more favorable to white candidates. The court ordered new lines to be redrawn for 11 House districts, creating districts that are now highly competitive and considered toss-ups rather than strong GOP seats. Those newly redrawn districts are in effect with next month’s elections.
Second, voters have begun to question whether partisan redistricting is good government and good policy, whether the potential for hyper-partisan redistricting designed to keep one party in power regardless is good for democracy.
That’s where the organization OneVirginia2021 comes into the picture to advocate for redistricting reform in the commonwealth that would take the line-drawing power from the politicians and give it to the people in the form of a nonpartisan citizen commission.
Originally co-chaired by former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, and former Del. Shannon Valentine, a Lynchburg Democrat who’s now secretary of transportation for Gov. Ralph Northam, OneVirginia embarked on what turned into a years-long quest to educate legislators and everyday Virginians about the evils of hyper-partisan redistricting. After years of work, both Republicans and Democrats crafted a reform package that, while not perfect by any means, is lightyears better than the partisan redistricting we’ve endured for decades as legislators essentially select their voters, rather than voters selecting their legislators.
But here’s the fear: If Democrats gain control of one or both chambers of the General Assembly in next week’s elections, will they be tempted to abandon redistricting reform, succumbing to the temptation to do unto Republicans as they were done unto for the past 20 years?
Power is intoxicating, and Republicans and Democrats are vulnerable to its charms. Already, according to news articles in The Washington Post, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Virginia Mercury, there’s low-level rumbling from Democrats on the cusp of power having second thoughts about the redistricting reform passed this year in the Assembly.
We have long advocated for redistricting reform in the commonwealth, not because it would benefit one party or another but because it is simply a matter of good government. Nonpartisan redistricting puts everyday Virginians in charge of their government, of their legislators, which is the way it should be. Whether or not the political makeup of the Assembly changes Nov. 5, we will continue to advocate for the redistricting reform plan passed by the legislature this year.
We will also call out any Assembly member who backs away from reform simply because his or her party takes power in Richmond. Count on it.