With voting in the 2020 election beginning as early as this Friday, Sept. 18, I need to use this week’s column to redouble my efforts to encourage everyone to VOTE NO on Amendment #1 to the Virginia Constitution that appears on the ballot.
I have and continue to be a dedicated advocate for improving the way we draw legislative districts in Virginia. Unlike the proponents of the Amendment, I have never wavered from my commitment to the axiom that for democracy to work as intended, voters need to choose their representatives, not the other way around.
Unfortunately, that’s not what Amendment #1 on the 2020 ballot does. In fact, it does just the opposite, enshrining the role of legislative leaders while shutting out the voices of the Virginia electorate from the process, with no guarantee that communities of color will have any meaningful input in a process that for generations has been used as one of the most effective tools to limit their ability to have meaningful and proportional representation in the legislature.
Among the Amendment’s most glaring flaws:
• It creates a bipartisan commission, rather than a nonpartisan one, while giving legislators immense power in the process — even if 14 of the 16 members of the Commission agree to the maps, just 2 legislators can veto that vote.
• It’s not a citizen commission in any meaningful way. The non-legislative members of the Commission are chosen from a list of nominees provided by the political leadership of both houses. And a panel of retired judges selected primarily by, you guessed it, the political leaders of both houses of the General Assembly.
• It misses a crucial opportunity to enshrine real and lasting protections for communities of color in the redistricting process going forward.
• It does not guarantee transparency or public input in the Constitution or the redistricting process.
• It creates an untenable timeline that risks the integrity of our entire election process.
Let’s talk more about the very partisan nature of the Commission. Any independents or third party adherents reading this, you will have no voice in this process. As noted above, all the members of the Commission with be loyalists from one of the two largest parties. That’s by design.
The Amendment only aims to make partisan gerrymandering impractical. It does so through a convoluted selection process that ensures no party is able to have an upper hand in negotiations. All the safeguards in the Amendment itself are designed to guarantee an equal voice to the largest political minority, as opposed to any voice for racial, ethnic, or language minorities.
While the Amendment does have language with some racial criteria, it only says “where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice” should be provided. That is a suggestion, not a requirement. Black Virginians and other minorities should not have to rely on the generosity of white people, it should be in the Amendment.
The Amendment first passed the General Assembly in 2019 under a Republican-led legislature after it became clear that Democrats were on the cusp of taking control of the legislature. Prior to 2019, they’d steadfastly opposed every effort to bring fairness, transparency, and citizen participation into the redistricting process.
Lest you think this is just an effort led by Democrats enjoying their newfound majority status and who’d like to do back to the Republicans what they’d always done in the past, please note that there are several grassroots organizations working to defeat this Amendment. Organizations like Progress Virginia, Virginians for Independent Redistricting, and New Virginia Majority are just a few of these organizations.
During the 2020 legislative session, the General Assembly passed into law HB1255, which outlaws racial and political gerrymandering. This bill passed on a 100% party line vote, with all Democrats voting in favor, and all Republicans opposed. Amendment #1 would void that law, and once again bring gerrymandering back to Virginia.
This is not a situation where the perfect is the enemy of the good. We shouldn’t settle for a so-called anti-gerrymandering redistricting amendment that doesn’t actually end gerrymandering. Amending our state constitution is not an easy process, nor should it be. For this reason and for the reasons I outlined above, we should be highly discerning in what we add to our State Constitution and VOTE NO on Amendment #1.