Local Commentary

Delegate Marcus Simon’s Richmond Report

Every Virginian has an opportunity this fall to listen to Black voices and to follow Black women leading the way on one of the most important issues of our time. To listen to the people whose lives have been most directly affected by a corrupt and shameful practice from our past and let them pick the cure.

On November 3rd, 2020 Virginia voters have an opportunity to vote NO on a proposed Constitutional Amendment that purports to be a reform measure, when it in fact enshrines in Virginia’s constitution the dominant role of politicians and political parties drawing their own districts.

The good news is there is still time for the people to get up to speed and stop this abomination of an amendment before it becomes the law of the land.
At each step of the exceedingly difficult process of amending the Constitution, as the language has received increased scrutiny, support for it has eroded. I’m hoping that before this final step enough of us will realize this amendment is deeply flawed and needs to be stopped.

In 2019, with a newly muscular minority, many of us were optimistic about being able to adopt meaningful redistricting reform and create a non-partisan independent commission with binding authority to draw new districts after the 2020 census. However, the sausage that came out of the Virginia State Senate gave us equal parts politicians and civilians, with guaranteed representation to the two largest political parties, no guarantee of minority representation, and no ban on gerrymandering.

And politicians retain veto power: any two politicians can scuttle a map. With that kind of control, the politicians retain all the leverage.

And yet I voted for it. It passed the Senate 39-1 before losing some support in the House and passing 85-13 over the objections of the members of Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, led most vocally by Black women.

I voted for it because it was the only bill before us that Republicans who controlled the General Assembly at the time would allow to come to the floor, and I knew this wasn’t the final vote. So reluctantly I ignored, again, the voices of the Black caucus members who warned me this wasn’t nearly good enough. “Piss poor” in fact, was how they described it.

In 2020, we came back to a Richmond completely and utterly turned upside down by the results of the 2019 elections, with Democrats in charge of both houses for the first time.

And Black women led an effort to revisit the problem of redistricting and gerrymandering, which has historically been used in Virginia as a tool (much like the poll tax, literacy tests, and other Jim Crow era devices) to disenfranchise and obscure the voices of Black voters and politicians in Virginia.

Out of that process came a better solution to gerrymandering. A bill that eliminated all the politicians. That was truly non-partisan and in fact citizen-led and controlled. A bill that would not only control the 2021 redistricting process but could also easily become a Constitutional Amendment in two years redefining redistricting process for decades to come.

Unfortunately, too many folks were married to the idea of the commission they’d come up with in 2019, and we came eight votes short of stopping it. So we tried to include language in accompanying legislation that created two paths forward, rules for the commission that would apply if Virginia voters adopt the Amendment, and rules for an alternative commission in case the Amendment fails in November in order to ensure that redistricting remains directly out of the hands of the full 140-member legislative body.

But proponents of the Amendment killed that bill, electing to move forward with NO accompanying legislation. What were they so afraid of? They know the only way this amendment passes is if the voters believe, as many of us did in 2019, that their language is the ONLY game in town for redistricting reform.

This is simply not true. There is a better way – a way that accomplishes all the best practices that opponents of gerrymandering say they want while simultaneously listening to Black voices telling us how best to help all our communities. The only way to do that is to vote NO this fall on the Constitutional Amendment.