As Richmond readies itself for the arrival of the newly empowered Democrats to take control of both chambers of the General Assembly in just a handful of weeks when the 2020 session opens, it seems as if everyone and his brother is offering the the legislators advice following the party’s flipping of the legislature in the elections earlier this month.
We have leapt into the fray with our admonishment last week to the Democrats not to overreach in their legislative agenda, as tempting as it may be to act immediately on all the items Democrats have had on their list since they last controlled both the Assembly and the governor’s office — two decades’s worth of pent-up political frustration.
But there is one item on the agenda that we want the Assembly — both Democrats now in the majority and the Republicans in minority for the first time in two decades — to act on with all due speed: redistricting reform.
For decades, finding a Republican in Virginia was as difficult as finding that proverbial needle in a haystack. Democrats under the euphemistically named “Byrd Organization” — “organization” sounded more genteel than “machine” — controlled state government, and Republicans, moderates then on race and civil rights and mainly from Southwest Virginia, were few in number with no power. The joke in Richmond was that the Republican caucuses in the state Senate and House of Delegates could meet simultaneously in a phone booth with room to spare.
Redistricting, required after each once-a-decade U.S. Census, merely served to keep the segregationist Byrd Organization Democrats safely ensconced in power. Beginning with the 1981 redistricting, the party — though it had broken from its racist past — was a tool to keep incumbent Democrats in power.
But during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the demographics of the commonwealth began to change. By the early 1990s, it was clear Republicans were in the ascendancy. The election of George Allen in 1993, the first Republican elected governor in more than a dozen years, followed by the election in 1997 of Republican Jim Gilmore, helped bring more Republicans in the Assembly, where the size of the GOP contingent grew with each election cycle. Finally, in 1999, the party captured control of the powerful House of Delegates, which they maintained with a steel grip until this year.
In 2001 and 2011, the GOP took up the cudgel of redistricting the Democrats had used on them for so many years and returned the favor, drawing legislative redistricts that secured their grip on power. After all, all’s fair in love, war and politics. During the 20 years the GOP controlled the House, the party enjoyed a nearly two-to-one advantage over the once-powerful Democrats, at one time even holding a veto-proof majority of 67 out of 100 seats.
But once again, the demographics of Virginia were changing. Between 2001 and today, there has only been one Republican governor — Bob McDonnell elected in 2009. All the statewide office holders since that 2009 election which saw Republicans take the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney have been Democrats. Both U.S. senators are Democrats, and the state went Democratic in the presidential elections of 2008, 2012 and 2016.
At the same time, the Assembly, especially the House, remained a strong GOP redoubt — because of partisan redistricting.
The 2011 redistricting of the House, however, will be seen as a turning point. After a long battle in the federal courts and two trips to the Supreme Court, the redrawing of the House districts was ruled an illegal racial gerrymander — that is, black and other minority voters were illegally drawn into super-majority-minority districts in order to decrease their number in other districts that wound up being safer for Republican incumbents.
Early in the decade, a bipartisan group of Virginians formed OneVirginia2021 to advocate for nonpartisan redistricting reform in the commonwealth. After years of hard ground work and lobbying in the Assembly, Republicans and Democrats devised proposal to eliminate partisan redistricting in Virginia through a constitutional amendment that would create an independent commission to draw districts for the state Senate, House of Delegates and the U.S. House of Representatives.
But in Virginia, the process to get a constitutional amendment to the voters for their say is cumbersome indeed. The law requires there be an election for the entire Assembly — like the November 2019 election — between the approval of any amendment by the legislature before it can be on the next general election ballot. On top of that, the new Assembly must re-pass the amendment worded exactly as the previous session of the legislature. Nothing can be changed, not even a comma or misspelling.
Virginia has a chance to end partisan redistricting forever, but it depends on the long-out-of-power Democrats re-passing the constitutional amendment. No doubt, some may be rethinking their support for redistricting reform now that they’re the ones with the power of the maps, but we have some advice for any wavering Democrat: Rise above your partisan leanings, do what’s right for this commonwealth and pass this amendment. It’s good policy and good politics. History will take note of what you do with this opportunity.