As one looks out over the public policy landscape in the midst of a seemingly out-of-control pandemic, it is easy to feel powerless and distressed at the direction of the country’s drift.
As the pandemic continues, it has not only been mismanaged into the worst and deadliest public health disaster in over a century but also has crippled the very spirit of the USA. With nearly 40 million unemployed we are in depression mode. American youth already lost a portion of the academic year 2019-20 with no apparent plan for making up the loss. Now, we head into academic year 2020-21 with the likelihood that students in grades K through college will lose at least a portion of the coming year as local governments, parents and teachers argue “safety” versus actual classroom instruction—be it in our vast unused brick and mortar buildings or yet unproven, part-time “virtual learning.” Our youth take the brunt of this publicly mismanaged disaster. How will we make it up to them? Now the White House is starting to dismantle one public service (besides defense) that has worked through the pandemic—the U.S. Postal Service, 500,000 men and women who keep on delivering mail to our doors.
Is there any ray of hope on this dismal horizon? Yes. The most obvious one is November 3, the day we get to change the incumbent in the White House, elect new Congressmen and women and one third of our U.S. Senators. Another tremendous ray of hope, also on November 3—is the opportunity to vote on Virginia’s constitutional amendment to end the practice of gerrymandering. As Congressman Don Beyer says, “this amendment is an enormous improvement on the undemocratic system Virginia has had for centuries.”
A constitutional amendment cannot be easily undone by legislators tempted to return to their old ways of carving up districts by packing them with voters of their own party and persuasion. This amendment is the product of a great deal of work and public pressure to transfer the power to draw districts (Congressional and Virginia legislative ones) from an opaque one controlled by majority legislators to a redistricting commission composed of 8 bipartisan legislators (4 from each party) and 8 independently selected citizens operating openly in public. The amendment was passed by both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates twice, in two different legislative sessions. In 2019, the amendment sailed through the Senate by a vote of 40 to 0 and the House 83 to 15—at the time the Republicans held a slight majority in both houses. In 2020, now with Democratic majorities in both houses, the amendment passed 38 to 2 in the Senate and a closer 54 to 46 vote in the House. Also, during the 2020 legislative session, the House and Senate both passed accompanying enabling legislation for the redistricting criteria to which both congressional and state legislative districts must adhere. The criteria include, inter alia, that districts be compact, composed of contiguous territory, preserve communities of interest, give racial and language minorities an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and …not dilute or diminish their ability to elect candidates of choice either alone or in coalition with others, and several other vital protections.
This year, after the Democrats captured modest majorities in both houses, a group of Democrats in the House of Delegates seemed to get cold feet, suddenly deciding that maybe things should be left as they had been… i.e., now that they held the majority and would control the redistricting process. Still the House passed the amendment, although by a smaller margin. The Senate, however, again passed the amendment overwhelmingly, 38 to 2. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw was quoted as saying, “The arguments against that [passage] were pure bullshit.”
Our own Delegate Ken Plum, the most senior delegate in the House, voted a firm YES both times and told me just a few days ago he still supports a YES vote on November 3, as does our longtime progressive Senator Janet Howell. The time to bring down the curtain on gerrymandering and restore fairness in Virginia redistricting has finally come. Now it is up to us on November 3. Please vote YES on November 3!