A few people gathered at North Branch School in Afton last week to hear about efforts to end gerrymandering in Virginia, a political issue Brian Cannon argues is nonpartisan.

“In politics, it’s so easy to put any issue into a ‘left/right’ framework,” Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, said last week.

Cannon told the small group gerrymandering isn’t about left and right, but about right and wrong. OneVirginia2021 calls itself a “nonpartisan leader in advocating for fair redistricting in Virginia.” Gerrymandering is a way to draw political boundaries in ways that maximize a governing party’s advantage. Redistricting would be aimed at ensuring citizens in the districts are more represented.  

Not everyone supports redistricting reform nationwide. According to a New York Times article from March 2019, the United States Supreme Court has yet to strike down gerrymanders based on party affiliation because they couldn’t agree on “a legal standard that would let them distinguish illegally partisan maps from acceptable ones.”

Katrien Vance, a teacher at North Branch, hosted Cannon after becoming involved with redistricting reform, but the information session was not affiliated with North Branch School.

Cannon said gerrymandering benefits both sides of the aisle for a number of reasons, including because people running for the House of Delegates and the Senate don’t want competitive elections. However, Cannon said he believes the problems with gerrymandering in Virginia are close to ending. In early 2019, the Virginia General Assembly passed the “first read” of a bipartisan constitutional amendment proposal, which could potentially create Virginia’s first redistricting commission. The Senate passed the amendment 40-0 and the House passed the amendment 85-13.

The potential redistricting committee would be made up of eight citizens and eight legislators, one of whom would serve as chair. The group of 16 would be nominated by both Democrats and Republicans in order to have an even committee across the aisle.

The final citizen selections would be determined by a panel of five retired circuit court judges and the citizens nominated would have to abide by a number of restrictions; for example they can’t be an elected member of Congress, the Virginia General Assembly, or a member of their staffs.

There would also be a system of checks and balances set in place and, according to OneVirginia2021, this redistricting committee would benefit Virginia because for the first time, citizens would have say in the redistricting process.

Cannon spent an hour on May 22 showing examples of different gerrymandered areas in states like Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina to explain what it does to communities, how personal it is to legislators, and how it’s done by both Republicans and Democrats alike. Cannon argued not every state is as aggressively divided to smother election competition, but it’s important for Virginia to pass this amendment because the state is so gerrymandered.

“There are plenty of places in the rest of the country where the goal is drive out competition to make as many safe seats as possible and then focus on the one or two seats that are competitive,” Cannon said.

Cannon also credits technology and the ease of access to personal information with making gerrymandering easier.

Cannon showed examples of how states like Iowa, California, and Arizona have better ways of redistricting so that citizens’ voices are included and it makes for more competitive elections.

After the November 2019 election, the proposal will go before the Virginia General Assembly again in early 2020. If it isn’t voted down, the amendment will be added to the ballot in the November 2020 election.

“No matter how good the laws are on paper, we still have work to do as a community to support a good process,” Cannon said.

Attendees at the information session were supportive of Cannon’s efforts as part of OneVirginia2021.

David Vance, Katrien’s husband, said he thought the meeting was fantastic.

“It was enlightening. It was a great presentation by Brian [Cannon] and I feel excited by One Virginia 2021,” Vance said.

Jennifer Page, a teacher at North Branch, attended the presentation with her daughter Olivia.

“Brian Cannon has figured out how to make redistricting reform feel important and seem obvious,” Page said. “He speaks clearly and intellectually on the subject, while connecting with people in the crowd and their life.”

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Erin Conway covers Nelson County. Reach her at (434) 385-5524 or econway@newsadvance.com.

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