“From the start, this movement has been about putting the voices of citizens about politicians and political parties,” the leaders of the pro-amendment group Fair Maps VA said in a statement early Wednesday. “Today, Virginia voters spoke loud and clear.”
Fair Districts, which opposed the amendment, said in a statement: “The people who pushed Amendment 1 know of its flaws — and it is now incumbent upon them to seek real solutions to fix those flaws, not just lip-service efforts like “consideration” of Virginia’s diversity.”
Under current law, every 10 years the governor and General Assembly decide the map for congressional and state legislative districts. The amendment would create a panel of eight citizens and eight legislators, with an even split between Democrats and Republicans. If the group is deadlocked, the state Supreme Court would step in, as is the case now.
Fair Maps VA Executive Director Brian Cannon says a fully independent redistricting commission would be preferable but is not currently feasible. Virginia law requires a proposed constitutional amendment to be approved in the General Assembly for two consecutive years before going to the voters — lawmakers would have to vote twice to give up all say in how districts are drawn.
“It’s not everything reformers want,” he said. “As a former high school government teacher, it’s probably a B, B-plus kind of reform — it’s not an A. I wish it was. But we’re getting an F right now.”
Virginia’s current maps were drawn by a special master after federal courts repeatedly found that maps drawn by Virginia Republicans unconstitutionally packed Black voters into a handful of districts.
Republicans advanced the amendment last year, just before Democrats won full control of state government. It was subsequently revised and passed by Democrats.
But Democratic lawmakers are sharply divided on the proposal. The state party is officially opposed, but U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, both Virginia Democrats, support it. Most Democrats in the state House of Delegates opposed the measure; most Democratic state senators voted for it.
Most Republicans in the General Assembly favor the measure. But public opinion on the amendment does not fall neatly along party lines. In an October Washington Post-Schar School poll, likely Democratic voters were more likely to support the amendment than Republicans, 59 percent to 38 percent. Self-described independents were also largely in favor, with 58 percent backing the change. (Virginians do not register by party.)
Emalie Coen, 39, who voted at Spring Hill Elementary School in McLean, supported the measure. She has moved around a lot and seen population growth that isn't well reflected in district lines. After a year in McLean, she said, “when I look at the map it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Margaret Dinunzio, 61, a Republican who voted early in Arlington County, said she was staunchly against the amendment.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea to keep changing things,” Dinunzio said. “I think America is good the way it is, and I don’t want things to change.”
Chris Doyle, 65, who voted for former vice president Joe Biden and the other Democrats on the ballot, said she supported the measure.
“There’s often too much political power involved in redistricting, and it’s unfair,” regardless of which party is in control, said Doyle, who had dropped off her ballot at an early-voting center in Fairfax County. “Having a bipartisan committee is a good thing.”
Overall about half of likely voters, 51 percent, said they would back the amendment, 32 percent planned to oppose it and 17 percent had no opinion.
Jing Xue, a 48-year-old software engineer and Libertarian voter in McLean, said he opposed the amendment “because I don’t think adding another complex layer of indirection is the solution to gerrymandering, despite how neutral the mechanics might seem designed to be.”
He would like to see districts drawn by a computer algorithm to ensure true neutrality: “In this day and age there are no technical barriers.”
Jesse Morton, 46, a Virginia Beach voter who supported Biden for president but Republican Scott Taylor in the 2nd Congressional District race, supported the amendment “to end gerrymandering.” “Why have an election if the deck is already stacked in one party’s favor?” he asked.
Many voters who went to the polls on Election Day said they knew little or nothing about the proposal before getting in the booth.
“In principle, I like the idea of getting rid of gerrymandering,” said Andrew Baca, 25, who voted at Spring Hill Recreation Center in McLean. But he had not heard about the amendment in advance and said a sample ballot provided by the Democratic Party described the commission as ineffective. He decided to vote no.
“I could see it being made into a partisan thing,” he said.
Some voters who were aware of the redistricting measure did not appear to believe the issue was that important, despite its potential to alter Virginia’s political landscape in significant ways during the next decade.
“With everything that’s going on these days, I don’t think redistricting is a big worry right now,” said Michael Elbon, 57, who did not make a choice on that question while voting at Yorkshire Elementary School in Manassas but did vote for Trump and other Republicans.
Republicans have not won a statewide race in Virginia in the past decade, and Democrats who opposed the amendment said it gives them too much leverage.
“I expect if the Republicans don’t get exactly what they want they will block it,” said Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax), who has proposed an alternative commission made entirely of citizens. “Democrats will do what we often do, which is capitulate.”
He said he expected the new maps would end up being decided by the state Supreme Court.
James Dahlheimer, 26, voting Tuesday in Charlottesville, agreed, which is why he voted no for the amendment.
“Leaving it up to the Supreme Court, the judges are still influenced” politically, he said.
Cannon argues Simon’s proposed alternative would effectively allow Democrats to control the process. “I’m personally a Democrat and I remember 2008, thinking Democrats were permanently in charge of the country . . . and then 2010 the pendulum swung back pretty hard,” he said. “For my Democratic friends who think the good times are here forever, that seems pretty naive.”
Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.