In the 2019 session of the General Assembly, almost a decade’s worth of hard work, lobbying legislators and educating the general public came to fruition when the House of Delegates and the state Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve a constitutional amendment to establish nonpartisan legislative redistricting in the commonwealth. The votes in the two chambers weren’t even close, either: a vote of 85 to 13 in the House and 39 to 1 in the Senate.
But that was just the start of a long process to amend the state Constitution. The second step comes Wednesday when the Assembly convenes for the 2020 session. The Constitution requires a new session of the legislature repass the proposed amendment without so much as a comma changed. The final step is to put the amendment before the voters in the next general election, which will be in November.
You’ve probably read quite a bit on redistricting reform on these pages and on the Opinion pages of other newspapers across the commonwealth in the last couple of months. And you’re also probably wondering why.
Here’s the answer: With the Democrats back in control of both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since 1993, redistricting reform is in grave danger.
There is probably no power more lusted after in Richmond every 10 years after a U.S. Census is conducted than the power to redraw legislative maps for the next decade.
For decades, when Democrats controlled Richmond, they used the power of the maps to keep Republicans in the minority despite the party’s’ rising strength in the electorate from the mid-1970s through early 1990s. Finally, demographics caught up with them, and the GOP grabbed control of the Assembly in 1999. In 2001, then-Speaker of the House Vance Wilkins, an Amherst County Republican, used the power to great aplomb to increase his party’s advantage further. Many rural Democrats were given the choice of retiring or becoming independent or see their districts sliced to bits — that’s why then-Del. Watkins Abbitt of Appomattox became an independent.
Then came the 2011 redistricting, with the GOP still in charge. The maps were reconfigured down to the street level to draw seats safe for Republicans. It’s when Lynchburg City was divided between two House districts and two Senate districts. It’s also when the House unconstitutionally used race to create super-minority-majority districts in order to solidify neighboring districts for Republicans. That battle waged in the courts for much of the 2010s, traveling to the U.S. Supreme Court twice and ultimately resulting in almost a third of the House’s 100 districts being redrawn under a federal court’s supervision.
All during the 2010s, the Democrats constantly fought for redistricting reform. Taking the moral high ground, they rightly argued that hyper-partisanship had created the extremist politics seen every day in Washington and that was fast appearing in Richmond. They argued that voters should select their elected representatives, not the other way around.
Their arguments were all correct. Partisan redistricting increases voter apathy and decreases voter turnout. Partisan redistricting creates seats safe for parties, so safe that the candidate who appeals the most to a party’s base in a primary usually is the general election victor, rather than a candidate who must reach out and create a “big tent” coalition. And, yes, partisan redistricting is a cancer eating away at the heart of democracy.
But a funny thing happened. In 2019, building on a blue tsunami in the 2017 elections for the 100 House of Delegates seats, Democrats grabbed full control of the Assembly. With a Democratic governor, the party controlled all levers of power in the capital for the first time in a generation.
And for the Democrats, it felt good. Really good.
They realized they would be the ones drawing the legislative maps in 2021 after the 2020 Census, with the potential to lock in their gains for a decade. The only thing standing in their way was that pesky constitutional amendment they and Republicans had overwhelmingly passed less than a year ago.
What to do, what to do?
Well, members of the Legislative Black Caucus raised questions about the makeup of the 16-member commission the amendment would create — eight members of the general public and eight members appointed by the legislature. How to guarantee it would be racially inclusive? And the prospect redistricting could go to the Virginia Supreme Court if the commission couldn’t settle on districts — the majority of the justices are Republican-appointed, you know. Other Democrats questioned whether taking redistricting out of the hands of the people’s elected representatives wouldn’t just ignore the voters’ voices — a convoluted argument if ever there was one.
The bottom line is this: Redistricting reform in the commonwealth can’t be taken for granted. It was easy for Democrats to be reform-minded when they were out of power; now that they’re in control, they must stand by the principled arguments for reform they have made for years. Pass the amendment, and give voters the final say in November.
If they don’t, prepare to reap the whirlwind.