Opinion: Commentary: Victory Towards Nonpartisan Redistricting

Opinion: Commentary: Victory Towards Nonpartisan Redistricting

The 2019 General Assembly legislative session concluded last Sunday. While this was a difficult and at times chaotic session, I am proud of the work we accomplished. One of the most important discussions this year was nonpartisan redistricting. As a conferee on the House bill, I was especially proud to be a leader in the passage of the critical redistricting constitutional amendment that guards against partisan gerrymandering by establishing an independent redistricting commission.

This compromise was only possible due to the power of 49. This power was granted to us by the voters of the historic 2017 election which saw a 15-seat swing in the General Assembly. These new seats have paved the way for policy gains we never would have thought were possible. Over the last two years, we have been able to increase the felony larceny threshold to $500, finally enact Medicaid expansion and this year we were able to pass a bill which will be critical to preventing partisan gerrymandering in the future.

Passing the amendment this year was the first step in enshrining a fair, transparent and nonpartisan redistricting process within the Virginia Constitution. If the bill had not passed this year, it would have been impossible to enact a constitutional amendment prior to the 2021 redistricting process and we would need to wait for the 2031 census to try again. In order for it to be enacted as a constitutional amendment before 2021, the amendment must pass the General Assembly with the exact same language next year and then be put before the voters of Virginia on the 2020 ballot for approval. As it heads through the approval process it is critical to examine what differentiates this amendment from our current political redistricting procedure.

The agreed upon amendment is a compromise between the Republican bill (Delegate Cole) HJ 615 and Democratic bill (Senator Barker) SJ 306. Each of these bills passed their respective chambers as separate bills which forced these amendments to go into “conference.” Once the bill was sent into conference I was assigned as a House conferee to work on a compromise between the two bills. As the lone Democratic representative on the House side, I felt it was my duty to ensure that the bill would be fair, transparent and constitute true nonpartisan redistricting.

The amendment creates a 16-member redistricting commission. The members consist of eight legislators and eight citizens with a citizen serving as the chair of the commission. There will be four legislators picked from each chamber of the General Assembly with political party leaders selecting their two representatives. The citizens are appointed by a selection committee consisting of five retired judges of the circuit court of Virginia. All meetings will be open to the public and all will require full transparency including meeting minutes and any data. Additionally, the language within the amendment includes protections for minority communities. In order for a map to be approved by the commission, six of the eight legislators and six of the eight citizens must vote yes on the map. The General Assembly will only be able to vote yay or nay to the map and will be unable to make any amendments. Furthermore, the Governor is excluded entirely from the process.

Now, some might argue that this amendment does not go far enough or that we should not be giving up our power to draw maps to our own partisan advantage. However, public service requires putting the needs of the public interest over political games. Our government is built upon the idea that representatives are responsive to their voters. Yet, if politicians are selecting voters that fit their own political agenda and disenfranchising others, it distorts the electoral process and undermines our representative democracy. It is time to let voters choose their representatives instead of representatives choosing their voters.

I want to thank all of the constituents, activists, and advocates that worked tirelessly during the General Assembly session. Without your support, it would not have been possible for us to pass this critical bill. Going forward, I am confident that this measure will pass the General Assembly once again in 2020 and that the voters of Virginia will approve the measure in November 2020. With the passage of this constitutional amendment, new district lines for Congress, the State Senate and the House of Delegates, reflecting the 2020 census will be drawn in a nonpartisan fashion for those elections beginning in 2021.