In addition to the presidential and congressional races on the ballot this year, Virginians will be voting on an amendment to the state constitution that would reform the redistricting process. Considering the Commonwealth’s recent history with gerrymandering districts that disenfranchise people of color and other communities in hopes of keeping certain political parties in power, many voters are eager to see a process that would create fair districts and find the amendment’s goals appealing. But community leaders are quick to point out the amendment is flawed and wouldn’t live up to the promises its supporters promote.
One of the leading criticisms of the amendment is it wouldn’t remove legislators from the process of drawing the new district lines. Instead, it would create a commission that consists of 12 people and half of the members would be sitting legislators. On top of that, the legislators are also in charge of putting forward the names of the other citizens who can be selected to serve on the commission.
Critics of the amendment rightfully point out this means the commission wouldn’t separate the redistricting process from politicians who’d naturally want districts to be drawn in a way to protect their own seats in the General Assembly and potentially help their political party. On top of that, it wouldn’t prevent the commission from drawing districts that would disenfranchised marginalized communities — something the courts have ruled Virginia’s illegally done on multiple occasions over the years.
Bryan Graham, the Chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, summed that argument up in a video that he recently posted on social media.
It’s not just members of the general public who are speaking out against the amendment as even some legislators admit that it gives elected officials too much influence over drawing their own districts.
“Although it is a commission and although it is half legislators and half citizens, at the core of the matter, legislators are ultimately picking the entire commission and controlling the entire process,” Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) said according to the Virginia Mercury. “It’s not independent by any means.
“There is nothing in this amendment that says we should make sure it is racially and ethnically balanced, that it is geographically balanced, that it is gender balanced,” she added. “There is no language whatsoever to make sure that the makeup of this commission is representative of the commonwealth, and particularly of Black and Brown representation.”
While both parties have a history of trying to draw district lines that benefit their own members, Republican members of Virginia’s General Assembly have been the most at fault recently. Not only have the districts they’ve drawn been designed to help increase their majorities, but the courts have ruled that they specifically disenfranchised people of color. Despite this history of trying to gerrymander districts in their favor, the Republican Party of Virginia as been actively campaigning in support of the amendment.
It hasn’t been lost on a lot of people that this move comes as Republicans have seen significant loses at all levels of government in Virginia. Democrats, for instance, now control both chambers of the General Assembly, represent seven of Virginia’s 13 congressional districts, and hold every single statewide office.
With this in mind, folks like Del. Marcus Simon point out that it shouldn’t be too surprising the Republican Party wants to keep legislators in charge of the process. “It’s true that Republicans have consistently supported having legislators pick their voters,” Simon recently tweeted. “That’s why they want you to vote yes, to keep legislators in charge of the process.”
To help emphasize this point, Simon and others have pointed out the amendment would require a supermajority of the commission would need to approve the new district maps. This means it would take just two people voting against the maps to reject the lines and send the process to the Republican controlled Supreme Court. In other words, if two Republicans in the House of Delegates weren’t happy with the proposed districts and wanted to have them gerrymandered to protect their seats, they would be able to block fair districts from being implemented.
The amendment’s opponents are also quick to point out that fair districts can still be implemented in 2021 if the amendment fails. There is nothing preventing the General Assembly from passing legislation establishing a fair process, after all. If it does pass, however, the process becomes incredibly hard to change and they believe it would result in an incredibly flawed process being put in place even though even supporters admit the process laid out could be improved.
In the end, the debate surrounding the redistricting amendment doesn’t appear to be about the need for a fair process. Almost everybody admits the status quo isn’t in the public’s best interest. Instead, the discussion is about whether or not a process should be put in place that would keep legislators in control of drawing new district lines.