So much of the attention surrounding the 2020 election revolves around the race for president. However, here in Virginia we have a multitude of other contests such as U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, city councils, school boards, and the like. In addition, there will be two amendments to the Virginia Constitution on the ballot.
The first amendment deals with the issue of redistricting. Presently, the General Assembly draws the lines for the legislative districts in the state. The House of Delegates draw the maps for the 100 House of Delegate seats and the Virginia Senate does likewise for their 40 member body. However, given the rules, whichever political party holds a majority of the seats in that chamber more or less has a blank check to draw the lines as they see fit. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that as part of my graduate research at WVU, I found a statistically significant increase in the number of Republican seats gained after the last two redistricting sessions in the House of Delegates as compared to other elections where there was no redistricting. Who controlled the House of Delegates during the last two redistricting sessions? The Republicans. Now if the tables were turned, I’m relatively certain that the Democrats would have done the same. After all, that is the Virginia way. Nevertheless, it doesn’t sound particularly fair, does it? Legislators choosing their voters as compared to the other way around.
In order to learn more about Amendment 1, I reached out to several pro-Amendment 1 people (FairMapsVA, the League of Women Voters, and Delegate Sam Rasoul D-Roanoke) and several anti-Amendment 1 people (Vote No on #1 and Delegate Mark Levine D-Alexandria) to hear their arguments. I’m still waiting to hear back from Del. Rasoul.
Supporters of Amendment 1 claim that if the people pass the legislation in November then Virginia will no longer suffer from partisan gerrymandering. The process will be fairer and some add that it will be free from the control of political parties. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But are these statements true?
To answer that question, it is important to read Amendment 1 rather than let me or anyone else tell you what it says. You can find the text on the Department of Elections website but I will also post it here.
Should the Constitution of Virginia be amended to establish a redistricting commission, consisting of eight members of the General Assembly and eight citizens of the Commonwealth, that is responsible for drawing the congressional and state legislative districts that will be subsequently voted on, but not changed by, the General Assembly and enacted without the Governor’s involvement and to give the responsibility of drawing districts to the Supreme Court of Virginia if the redistricting commission fails to draw districts or the General Assembly fails to enact districts by certain deadlines?
It doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Including citizens into the process ought to make the process more fair, shouldn’t it? But there are many unanswered questions here. Who are the legislators involved? How are the citizens selected for the commission? Do they need a simple majority of the commission in order to approve the districts? Fortunately, the Department of Elections includes all of these answers if we simply read further.
The eight legislative commissioners are appointed by the political party leadership in the state Senate and the House of Delegates, with an equal number from each house and from each major political party. The eight citizen commissioners are picked by a committee of five retired circuit court judges. Four of the retired judges are selected by party leaders in the Senate and the House from a list compiled by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia. These four judges pick the fifth judge from the same list. This selection committee then chooses citizen commissioners from lists created by party leaders in the Senate and the House.
For starters, we see that according to the amendment, the commission, by law can only include Republicans and Democrats. There will be no independents or third-party legislators or citizens. As for their selection, we see that party leaders get to create the list of citizens who are eligible to serve. That doesn’t sound very good, does it? Rather than a fair, nonpartisan commission, they create a body with the political parties’ fingers all over the selection process. Given what you know about politics, do you think the parties will select good, honest citizens who are fair-minded or instead select party loyalists who are more than happy to advance their party’s wellbeing at the expense of their fellow Virginians? I know which one I think would be far more likely.
Moving on, we find
For a plan to be submitted for the General Assembly’s approval, at least six of the eight citizen commissioners and at least six of the eight legislative commissioners must agree to it. Additionally, for plans for General Assembly districts to be submitted, at least three of the four Senators on the commission have to agree to the Senate districts plan and at least three of the four Delegates on the commission have to agree to the House of Delegates districts plan.
Given that four of the eight citizens are Republicans and the rest are Democrats and four of the eight legislators are Republicans and the remainder are Democrats, it seems highly likely that compromise maps would not occur as each side jockeys for an advantage, carving the largest number of favorable districts for his or her political party. In addition, if one political party thinks that they may get a better deal through the Supreme Court drawn maps, members of one political party could intentionally scuttle negotiations in order to shift full responsibility to an unelected and unaccountable branch of the government.
I have found that Republicans generally favor Amendment 1 while Democrats are opposed to it. This makes sense from a political perspective. After having a free hand to gerrymander Virginia for the last two cycles (except for one instance with the Virginia Senate lines), Republicans are now in the minority. If this amendment doesn’t pass then Republicans will have no say in redistricting. By contrast, now that Democrats hold the majority in the entire General Assembly for the first time since the 1990s they would be eager to draw lines that will help ensure their party’s dominance for the next election cycle.
Make no mistake. The redistricting system we have currently in Virginia is bad. The maps are gerrymandered by legislators in the majority party in order to favor the majority party. But, unfortunately Amendment 1 doesn’t really address or fix any of these problems.
Does Amendment 1 establish a nonpartisan commission to draw the boundary lines? No
Does Amendment 1 prevent legislators from choosing their voters? No
Does Amendment 1 put redistricting in the hands of the people, not the politicians? Given that the politicians get to choose which people are involved, definitely not.
Does Amendment 1 include independent or third party voices in the commission? No
Does Amendment 1 make it easy for one of the two major political parties to stonewall the commission and force judicially-drawn maps? Yes
Is there any language whatsoever in Amendment 1 that forbids gerrymandering, that prevents the commission from carving up Virginia like a Christmas ham, doling out as many safe districts as possible to each of the two major political parties? I can’t find it, can you?
Don’t get me wrong. Virginia needs redistricting reform. And although Amendment 1 might sound nice at first glance, it does not address or correct the major flaws with our current system. The players may have changed but the rotten gerrymandering system remains. Sure, it would be great to have citizens involved, but when you realize that these citizens will be chosen based upon their loyalty to a political party and that legislators and political parties will still have their fingers in the pie, Amendment 1 looks like a bait and switch to confuse Virginia’s voters and trick them into supporting a system which doesn’t actually do what its supporters claim it does.
After examining the arguments both in favor and opposition, for the reasons I list above I strongly encourage you to vote no on Amendment 1. We need to do better. Fortunately, there are better ideas and options out there. One such example is HJ143. Go give it a look and tell me it isn’t better than Amendment 1.