No matter which side one happens to be on in the battle over a state constitutional amendment to revamp Virginia’s legislative and congressional redistricting, there seems to be general agreement on one thing:
Offer a politician the chance to enhance his or her party’s prospects by drawing election districts their way, and they will do it.
“Both sides are terrible [when given the opportunity], because we are self-interested,” acknowledged Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News), who is opposing the amendment in hopes its rejection will force establishment of a fully nonpartisan redistricting process in its place.
Price has consistency on her side: She has been against the constitutional amendment from its genesis more than two years ago. That, however, cannot be said for many of her Democratic colleagues in Richmond, who in 2019 supported the measure, then reversed course in 2020 and voted against putting the measure on the ballot.
What changed in the interim? Democrats were in the legislative minority until the November 2019 elections, but now control both houses of the General Assembly as well as the governorship, and if the constitutional amendment fails, will be able to control the redistricting process next year.
“Most Democrats supported the amendment until they took over the statehouse. Now they oppose it,” said Jeremy Mayer, a political analyst and professor of public policy at George Mason University.
“The reason is clear – the Democrats want some payback,” said Mayer, pointing to 2011, when Republicans drew House of Delegates districts to benefit themselves. The result: Republicans, who controlled 59 of the 100 delegate seats at the time, saw their majority balloon and by 2014 occupied 68 seats.
(Democrats, who controlled the state Senate in 2011, were in charge of redrawing the 40 districts of the upper house. Since then, the majority has passed back and forth between the parties, seldom by more than a seat or two.)
Price, Mayer and amendment backer Brian Cannon took part in an Oct. 14 roundtable discussion sponsored by the Arlington Committee of 100 on the topic.
Cannon said he didn’t have a lot of faith in promises by Democrats who oppose the amendment that, if it is defeated, they will draw legislative and congressional districts in an unbiased fashion.
“The party in power always fights reform. It is like clockwork,” he said.
Like Price, Cannon said he supports the concept of a fully independent commission to draw political boundaries in Virginia. The amendment should only be considered a step in the right direction, Cannon said, not the final destination.
“If the amendment passes, we get better districts . . . and we get to be watchdogs,” since the process would be public, he said.
Price, however, said the proposal represented a bait-and-switch effort to mislead the public that it represented real reform. General Assembly members would represent half the membership on the redistricting body set up by the constitutional amendment; those members, she said, would be appointed by senior party leaders to look out for the interests of their parties.
“I call it a sham – it is not independent, it is not bipartisan,” she said.
Price took exception to a characterization that all Democrats flipped positions when it became advantageous to do so, calling “cynical and unfair.”
“We did not change, we did not flip,” she said of a subset of the Democrat caucus, including many African-American legislators, who have been critical of the amendment from its inception two years ago.
Cannon conceded the point to Price. “She’s been consistently opposed to this from the beginning – points for consistency,” he said.
If the amendment passes and the redistricting body is empaneled, it would send its recommendations to the legislature for an up-or-down vote; lawmakers would not be able to amend the proposed boundaries. If the General Assembly turned thumbs down, redistricting would be turned over to the Virginia Supreme Court, which likely would in turn hand it off to a group of technical experts.
“Gerrymandering” – drawing districts to enhance a political party’s dominance – dates to the 1820s, although ironically, the politician for whom the concept is named (Elbridge Gerry, then governor of Massachusetts) actually opposed the outrageously partisan legislative districts drawn up in his state.
Federal law provides a few guardrails protecting rights of voters in the drawing of districts, but beyond them, there is not much absent state law or a state constitutional amendment to stop politicians from drawing them as they see fit.
The fate of the constitutional amendment has split Virginia’s Democratic leadership. Leaders in the Republican Party, who face the prospect of being gerrymandered into near-irrelevance if Democrats control the process next year, generally have been supportive of the amendment’s passage.
Hannah Dannensfelser, who chairs the Arlington Committee of 100, said the 70-minute forum had been instructive for participants, resulting in “a lot of folks who are feeling much more prepared” to enter the polling booth.
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