Opinion: Independent Progressive: Constitutional Amendment to End Gerrymandering—Not Quite

Opinion: Independent Progressive: Constitutional Amendment to End Gerrymandering—Not Quite

Virginia is on the verge of reforming its legislative redistricting process (for VA Senate, House of Delegates and US House of Representatives) following the national census every ten years. The antiquated process encourages rampant gerrymandering, i.e., deliberate manipulation of district lines to the advantage of the party in power and incumbents. Incumbents are protected; communities are carved up; elections are less competitive; partisan gridlock is the norm and compromise impossible. Legislators select their voters instead of vice versa. Thanks to the work of the non-profit One Virginia 2021 and other reform advocates, the Virginia General Assembly (Senate and House of Delegates) passed a bipartisan constitutional amendment in 2019 to reform the process for redistricting. If enacted, it could reduce abuses with a more transparent and balanced process. To be enacted, it must be passed again, by the newly elected legislature in 2020, and then be approved by Virginia voters in a statewide referendum in Nov. 2021. The amendment came out of a legislative conference. It was a compromise with provisions from several proposals. The amendment creates a redistricting commission composed of 8 legislators and 8 citizens (the first citizen involvement ever). Citizens will be bipartisan, with their final selection made by a panel of 5 retired circuit court judges from a large pool put forth by the legislature. To pass any new district maps, a supermajority of 6 legislators and 6 citizens is required. The Supreme Court of VA. will decide if they cannot agree. All commission meetings and records are open to the public. The legislature will vote to approve or not any new maps, but it cannot amend them.

One Virginia 2021 says categorically that although the amendment does not include all they proposed, “This will end partisan gerrymandering in Virginia.” Del. Ken Plum sees it as a “great improvement,” but acknowledges that it is “not perfect.” Nevertheless, he says it “need[s] to get on the ballot for voter approval in time for the 2020…redistricting.”

Others, like Reston’s Bill Penniman, a public policy specialist, and myself believe there are serious shortcomings. For example, we think there is a distinct possibility that the legislature will largely still control the process. The legislators on the commission will have an interest in protecting their seats and, while dividing them up may reduce potential for abuses, the temptation for trading among them is a real possibility. Some partisan gerrymandering abuses may be tamped down, but stopping incumbent protection will be tougher to achieve. The citizen commissioners will be at a disadvantage. Lacking technical support and time for meaningful deliberation may weaken their potential for fair drawing of districts. The citizen members will be on a tight time schedule to hold public hearings around the state and draw maps for 140 General Assembly districts and 11 congressional districts. This could result in citizen commissioners ending up voting on districts as proposed to them by the legislative contingent.

Fixing glitches in the operation of the commission will be limited to things that can be done without having to amend the constitutional amendment. For example, the legislature, if there is the will, can level the playing field for citizen commissioners by providing for technical support and providing tools for greater scrutiny and reporting to the public of what goes on in the commission.

Perhaps we critics overestimate the flaws. I hope so, because gerrymandering is a major tear in the fabric of our democratic form of government. In any case, we agree that the proposed amendment may lead to significant improvement in drawing fairer federal and state legislative districts, certainly enough to justify proceeding. I suggest you let your legislators know you want them to vote for the amendment in the 2020 session. Reform is difficult work, made more so when it depends on some who perceive it as not in their interest to succeed.