david kerr H&S

When it comes to drawing electoral districts, the state of Virginia has been breaking the law for almost 50 years. I know that’s harsh, but, if not violating the law, our lawmakers in Richmond have certainly acted in a manner that is contrary to what our state Constitution intended. 

According to Article 2, Section 6, of Virginia’s Constitution, “Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as is practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district.” Nothing could be further from the reality of what happens.

Have you looked at the legislative map of Virginia recently? It can be very upsetting. It’s a shameless hodgepodge of lines, quirky shapes and split precincts. It looks more like a Rorschach Test than a rationally developed set of districts. Fortunately, Amendment 1 gives us a chance to stop that.

Before the Republicans used technology in 2001 to build a set of what seemed like a wall of impenetrable red districts, the Democrats had followed a similar course in the decades before. Often when making the case for or against such gerrymandering, it’s been argued that it’s not so bad, because the other party would do the same thing. That has to be the worst justification imaginable.

For the past 20 years, Virginia Democrats, thanks to gerrymandering, have had to deal with a GOP majority. So it’s no surprise that for years they took every opportunity to advocate for a bipartisan commission to draw the districts. However, now that they finally have the majority and would, in the absence of Amendment 1, control the next redistricting, they have lost their zest for a redistricting commission. To their credit, a few Democratic legislators remain committed to Amendment 1, and it passed the General Assembly with bi-partisan support.

The amendment calls for the creation of a commission to draw the district lines for the House of Delegates, the state Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

It’s not a simple process, but not a brain buster either. The amendment moves the responsibility of drawing districts to a bipartisan commission with 16 members. Half of the members would be drawn from the General Assembly and half would be private citizens. Just like the U.S. military’s Base Realignment and Closure actions, the plan can only be passed or rejected. It’s a straight up or down vote. There can be no changes by the General Assembly.

Ah, but what happens in an impasse? If the commission can’t agree or if the General Assembly can’t pass the plan? Then it goes to the Virginia Supreme Court, which will do the mapmaking.

Is this perfect? Probably not. But, thanks to gerrymandering, in 2015 about half the districts were so rigged that no one from the other party even bothered to run. Or, in some cases there was just token opposition. That’s not democracy. That’s a wanton abuse of the process, and while a commission may not make the process perfect, it will open up a level of competitiveness that Virginia hasn’t seen before. That’s a dose of democracy that will be refreshing and welcomed.

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.

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