The Arlington County Democratic Committee may have come out against the state constitutional amendment on redistricting that will be on Virginia’s Nov. 3 ballot. But the three members of Arlington’s state Senate delegation say they support it nonetheless.
The amendment to create a redistricting commission represents “a big step forward,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria-Arlington).
“It will ensure that no one party dominates the process, effectively ending partisan gerrymandering,” Ebbin told the Sun Gazette. “The amendment also ensures transparency and brings citizens to the table.”
State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax-Arlington) concurred.
“I have long advocated for a constitutional amendment to reduce political pressure in the redistricting process,” she said. “No proposal will ever be perfect, but the one before the voters is a great improvement over the current system. Flaws can be remedied by enabling legislation.”
Also on board is state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington-Fairfax-Loudoun).
“It is time to end gerrymandering,” she said. “The amendment would enshrine in our constitution that districts be drawn in accordance with federal and state laws that address racial and ethnic fairness. These protections are worthy of placement in Virginia’s constitution so they cannot be ignored by future General Assemblies.”
The proposed amendment calls for creation of a 16-member Virginia Redistricting Commission, featuring eight legislators and eight citizen members. Four commissioners would be from the state Senate and four from the House of Delegates. Those memberships would be split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
A Redistricting Commission Selection Committee, staffed by five retired Circuit Court judges, would select the citizen members from lists provided by leaders in the state Senate and House of Delegates.
If the redistricting panel could not agree on district boundaries, the process would be handed over to the Virginia Supreme Court, which likely would rely on outside experts to draw district lines.
For a constitutional amendment to make it on the ballot, it must be approved by both houses of the legislature twice, with an election in between.
The redistricting proposal first won approval in 2019, when Republicans controlled the Senate and House of Delegates, on a relatively bipartisan vote. In 2020, when Democrats had taken control of both houses, enough Democrats voted with Republicans to pass the measure. (Virginia governors cannot veto legislation placing constitutional amendments on the ballot, so the view of Gov. Northam on the matter was not a factor in play.)
The Democratic Party of Virginia in recent months went on record opposing the measure, and the Arlington County Democratic Committee on Aug. 6 by a more than three-to-one margin voted to oppose it.
In the debate on the matter, opponents of the amendment said Democrats would create a better, more independent redistricting process. But those supporting the measure warned that a position against it would give Republicans an opening to suggest Democrats had abandoned their good-government principles for the sake of political expediency – the expediency in this case being the power of Democrats to redraw the boundaries as they saw fit in 2021. Any boundaries adopted next year likely would be in place for a decade.
While Arlington’s state senators are supportive of the constitutional amendment, it has won less praise from the four members of the House of Delegates whose districts include portions of Arlington.
Among them, Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria-Arlington) has been most aggressively vocal in his opposition from the start, although others took a more nuanced approach to making up their minds.
Del. Rip Sullivan (D-McLean-Arlington) voted against the amendment proposal during the General Assembly session, calling it perhaps the hardest vote he’d taken.
“I became convinced that we could do better,” Sullivan told the Sun Gazette. “There were difficulties in the amendment that led me to believe it would be unwise to enshrine it in the constitution at this point in time.”
Favola said she appreciated concerns of those who oppose the measure, but, like Howell, said those could be rectified legislatively after the amendment passed.
“I am certainly committed to working with the opponents to pass enabling language that addresses specific concerns about how the commission operates, but for now, let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” she said
The Arlington County Democratic Committee’s “sample ballot” handed to voters at the polls this fall will recommend a “no” vote. Sample-ballot positions often, but not always, sway the local electorate.
In 2012, the Democratic committee opposed a state constitutional amendment strengthening rights of property owners against governmental use of eminent-domain powers, but Arlington voters (and those statewide) supported the measure by healthy margins.