After almost a decade of hard work, advocates of redistricting reform in Virginia had much to celebrate last Sunday when the General Assembly adjourned, closing its 2019 session. Finally, a credible reform package in the form of an amendment to the Virginia Constitution had passed both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, a crucial step to ending partisan redistricting in the commonwealth.
But it wasn’t easy getting to this point, and much work remains to rid the commonwealth of this scourge on democracy before the 2020 U.S. Census and the redrawing of state and federal legislative districts that will follow in 2021.
In watching the process of the Assembly hammer out this redistricting reform amendment, two old axioms about politics come to mind. First, lawmaking is like sausage making — you don’t want to see what goes into the grinder. Second, a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee.
OneVirginia2021 is the leading advocacy group that has been pushing redistricting reform since 2014. Its initial co-chairs were former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, and former Del. Shannon Valentine, a Democrat who represented Lynchburg in the House of Delegates and now serves as secretary of the Department of Transportation.
Both had seen firsthand the dangers of hyper-partisan politics. Indeed, Bolling was at the center of the Republican Party’s efforts to defeat Valentine in the 2009 election. And it was just a year or so later, in the 2011 redistricting, that Lynchburg was split between two House districts, with Valentine’s residence placed in a heavily Republican district to prevent her political comeback. But it was during Bolling’s second term as lieutenant governor that he had his “Road to Damascus” experience and acknowledged the dangers partisan redistricting posed.
To see the effects of gerrymandering up close, just look at a map and see how Danville and Pittsylvania County were sliced and diced in 2011 between two Senate districts and two House of Delegates districts. The gerrymandered Fifth Congressional District is even worse, stretching from the Virginia/North Caroline line on the Southside to Fauquier County in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
The OneVirginia2021 staff drew up an excellent draft of a proposed amendment to end partisan redistricting and gerrymandering. The members of the state Senate and the House of Delegates were all but removed from the process, stripping them of the ability to redraw their districts in such a way so as to pick their own voters and preserve their party’s position of power. OneVirginia2021 proposed an independent, 12-member commission to which private citizens could apply with selection overseen by a panel of retired state judges. Gerrymandering was specifically forbidden when drawing up districts, as was any consideration of political party.
Reform-minded senators introduced a resolution that incorporated the OneVirginia2021 proposal, but it was defeated on a close vote in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.
Fortunately, the committee did advance a competing proposal to the full Senate. It contained many of the key elements of the OneVirginia2021 plan, but gave a role to legislators in selecting eight members of a 16-member commission. Floor votes on amendments addressed two key differences with the OneVirginia2021 draft, but an anti-gerrymandering amendment failed.
Across the Capitol, the House of Delegates passed its own reform proposal, but unlike the bipartisan support the Senate’s plan drew, the House vote was a straight party-line vote. The House proposal gave tremendous power to elected politicians in naming members of the commission, included language that encouraged “parity” between the parties and said next to nothing about ending the practice of gerrymandering.
But in a conference committee comprised of members of both chambers, a funny thing happened. The conferees, apparently, came to realize that something had to be done to address this festering issue and that this was the last chance to do so for the next 10 years. The conference report was clearly based more on the Senate’s plan (and, thus, indirectly on the original OneVirginia2021 plan) with requirements for full transparency and open meetings, but most importantly, with the bulk of the power residing in the citizen members of the commission. All maps for state Senate, House of Delegates and U.S. House of Representatives districts must receive a super-majority vote of the panel. Gerrymandering is prohibited, and there is no mention of “party parity” as a requirement of the process.
Now begin the final, crucial steps.
An election of the full General Assembly takes place this November, with all 40 Senate seats and all 100 House seats up for grabs. Then, this new legislature must repass the resolution just approved — word for word and comma for comma — before it can be placed on the ballot in November 2020 for voters to have the final say. It’s a long, arduous process and one fraught with danger, especially in the 2020 Assembly session. But if we can get to November 2020 with this constitutional amendment on the ballot, we believe it will pass overwhelmingly, and finally the average Virginian, not the politicians, will have control of his government.