I have been fighting for nonpartisan redistricting reform for years, and many of my colleagues had redistricting reform as a centerpiece of their election campaigns. For many of our constituents, ensuring independent and nonpartisan redistricting was a key issue of the last election. As absentee voting has begun in Virginia, and record numbers of voters are beginning to fill out their ballots, whether at home or in-person, it is a critical time to explain why Virginians who are passionate about true nonpartisan redistricting should vote no on Constitutional Amendment #1.
The most important thing to know is that Constitutional Amendment #1 does NOT end gerrymandering in any way. Nor does it create an independent and nonpartisan redistricting commission. These two basic goals that we set out to achieve when this amendment was first conceived are not what is accomplished with the final product before us on the ballot this November.
Most importantly, it does not include any explicit protections for people of color in Virginia. As courts have determined that several Virginia districts have been racially gerrymandered. Ensuring that Black voices are heard in our elections is paramount and must be included in any sustainable proposal.
For many, there is an urgency to do something, to replace what we currently have with this flawed amendment. However, the difference is that this time, the flawed system will be embedded into the Virginia Constitution, where it is equally as difficult to remove something as it is to add something in.
When we are talking about the Constitution: when in doubt, leave it out!
Perhaps the biggest flaw in this proposed amendment is that legislators are still involved in the process of drawing districts, which means that legislators will still be choosing their constituents, instead of the other way around. Under the proposal, the four top leaders of the General Assembly — the Speaker and Minority Leader in the House, and the Majority and Minority leaders in the Senate — pick every single member of the redistricting commission.
Of the 16 members, all of whom are chosen by the party leaders, eight would be incumbent legislators (four Democrats and four Republicans) and eight would be people chosen by the legislators. Including incumbent members makes this commission inherently partisan. If all of that wasn’t bad enough, if just two legislators object to the proposed map, the entire process is determined by a panel of judges who are appointed by the legislature whose district lines they are designing.
Indeed, Virginia is one of only two states in the nation that appoints its judges. Now, that is a very flawed design. This proposal has partisanship buried in every facet.
There is an insidious consequence to this arrangement, where legislators on both sides of the aisle would feel beholden to the legislators who are appointed to serve on the commission, afraid that voting against their legislation or another disagreement would cause them to be retaliated against and drawn out of their district, for example. This very realistic scenario alone highlights the damage that this amendment could have on our legislative process.
If this amendment doesn’t pass, have we then lost the opportunity to do anything about gerrymandering in 2021? Absolutely not. During session this year, the General Assembly passed HB 1255 and its Senate companion, SB 717. That's right — let me repeat — this year the General Assembly banned gerrymandering. This law explicitly prohibits the drawing of district lines that unduly favor any one political party. Importantly, this law also fully protects communities of interest and racial and ethnic minorities from disenfranchisement caused by gerrymandering. This is already the law for the upcoming 2021 redistricting, unless it is overruled by a majority of Virginia voters who vote for Amendment #1. Should this amendment fail at the ballot box this November, my colleagues and I are committed to creating a true, independent redistricting commission free from influence from any incumbent legislators during this upcoming regular session.
For these reasons, I urge you to vote no on Constitutional Amendment #1.