The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia’s voters demanded change with Amendment 1

Redistricting reform advocate Brian Cannon poses with some of his yard signs and bumper stickers in his office in October in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)

Sara Fitzgerald has worked on redistricting reform with the League of Women Voters and OneVirginia 2021. The views expressed are her own.

As the new Virginia Redistricting Commission entered its 45-day window for redrawing the state’s legislative maps this month, there was a major change in the cockpit. Although the commission has not yet drawn a single line, a majority of its citizen members, with the help of some sympathetic legislators, signaled that they are no longer willing to just go along for the ride.

State Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford), a legislator member, had repeatedly worried about whether the commission would be able to get the commission’s proposed maps through the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, state Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax) was caught on an open microphone advising Brandon Hutchins, a Democratic citizen member from Virginia Beach, that he should not be influenced by “some complaints here and there” about the commission’s decisions. Members of the public have been alarmed by the commission’s decision to hire partisan counsels with their own partisan map drawers and to provide incumbent addresses at the start of map-drawing. Some legislators were insisting they had to be the ones to draw their own chamber’s maps.

Chris DeRosa, speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, told the commission on Aug. 23, “You might land the plane, but if the politicians are in the pilot’s seats and the cabin door is locked, you may not have the approval of the voters who are sitting in the main cabin at the back of the plane.”

The fact that Newman’s and Barker’s attitudes were on public display marked an improvement over previous rounds of redistricting. Under Amendment 1, a constitutional amendment Virginians passed in November, all of the commission’s work must be conducted in the sunlight, rather than behind the closed doors of the past.

But what most of the legislative members seemed to have forgotten is that the public did demand a change. Virginians voted overwhelmingly66 percent to 34 percent — in favor of seating citizens at the table. The amendment was approved by voters from every corner of the state, both red and blue, and by a majority of voters in every county but one.

In their exchange, Barker had observed to Hutchins that their task was “not easy.” But then he needled Hutchins, “You asked for this. You filled out that form.” Indeed, more than 1,200 Virginians (including Hutchins and me) cared enough about the process to complete a lengthy application to serve on the commission, including rounding up three letters of recommendation. Still more citizens are filing comments, traveling to public hearings and using new software tools to define their “communities of interest” to help the commission draw more sensible maps.

From a practical standpoint, it may make little difference whether the legislators can, in fact, “land the plane.” If the General Assembly fails to approve the commission’s maps, the Supreme Court of Virginia will take over. Although the amendment’s opponents raised concerns about that court’s Republican tilt, the court is required to select two special masters, one recommended by each of the parties, to work together on the final maps. These professionals will be bound by the same criteria that the commission has to follow, and the law stipulates that the court can permit the public to participate.

It took time for the citizen members to get up to speed on the intricacies of redistricting. In the early months, it was easy for them to be dominated by “experienced” legislators, advising them that “this is how it’s always been done.”

But after seven months, some had had enough. Sean Kumar, a Democratic citizen member from Alexandria, spoke passionately about the need for the commission to “look out for the people.” Following the old ways of doing redistricting, he said, makes “a mockery of the process.”

Kumar previously demonstrated his dedication to the job by calling in to a commission meeting from Japan, where he was serving as a reserve officer in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He now charged that the commission was more concerned about the needs of 140 incumbent legislators than it was about the needs of 8.5 million Virginians. “If three citizens reject the plans,” he threatened, “the plane will still not land.”

James Abrenio, a Democratic citizen member from Fairfax, used his skills as a trial lawyer to challenge Newman’s logic. Abrenio, too, had shown his commitment to the commission’s work by participating while on his honeymoon. The best way to land the plane, he argued, was “to come together as a commission to propose fair maps.” If the General Assembly doesn’t approve the plans, he said, there should be “political consequences.”

Then, in two key votes, the commission voted to heed the public’s call to “start from scratch,” rejecting the current gerrymandered maps as one of its starting points.

Virginians are not yet marching on Richmond with pitchforks, but their citizen representatives are picking up theirs. During his pep talk to Hutchins, Barker told Hutchins he should try to “figure out what’s best for Virginia.” Barker and the rest of the commission would do well to heed that advice.