Ken Cuccinelli II, a Republican, served as Virginia’s attorney general from 2010 to 2014. Ward Armstrong, a Democrat, served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1992 to 2012 and was House minority leader from 2007 to 2012.
As a Republican from Northern Virginia and a Democrat from rural Henry County, we’ve seen how redistricting has been abused by both political parties in the Virginia General Assembly. One of us, as the Democratic leader in the House of Delegates in 2011, was gerrymandered out of the seat he’d held for 20 years. The other, as the Republican attorney general, was obligated to defend that redistricting plan, despite his own reservations about it.
Now, our bipartisan committee of 10 former officeholders and election law experts has proposed an amendment to the commonwealth’s constitution to put citizens’ interests above partisan political interests when Virginia’s election map is redrawn in 2021. The amendment would reduce, but not eliminate, the General Assembly’s role in redistricting and give final authority to an independent commission of 10 qualified citizens.
In 2021, that commission would be responsible for drawing new boundaries for all 100 House of Delegates districts, all 40 Virginia Senate districts and Virginia’s 11 congressional districts.
We’re confident that the people of Virginia are ready to put an end to partisan gerrymandering, as voters in four states did last year. But Virginians will get that opportunity only if the General Assembly allows it. The amendment will be introduced by bipartisan sponsors in the upcoming session, but passage is far from certain. That makes this moment urgent.
To take effect in time for the redistricting that must follow the once-in-a-decade national census, this amendment must pass in the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 9. Then it must pass with no changes — not even a comma — in the session one year later. Only then can it go before voters in November 2020.
How would the amendment change the 2021 redistricting? First, because gerrymandering thrives behind closed doors and in midnight meetings, the new process would be open and transparent. Further, the amendment specifies district criteria that favor fair elections.
To ban partisan gerrymandering and incumbent protection, no district would be drawn to favor or disfavor any political party, incumbent legislator or individual.
Districts would be drawn to respect the boundaries of cities, counties and towns. Where dividing localities is unavoidable, mapmakers would consider boundaries such as rivers, mountains, major highways, residential subdivisions and communities of interest.
Acknowledging Virginia’s history, districts would not be drawn to abridge minority communities’ ability to elect representatives of their choice.
Districts would be compact and contiguous, not far-flung or disconnected.
Districts would be nearly equal in population but allowed to deviate by up to 0.5 percent for congressional districts and 5 percent for General Assembly districts. In the past, less flexible standards provided cover to distort boundaries for partisan advantage.
The 10-member commission would be chosen in a method that provides independence but recognizes the traditional role of the legislature and political parties.
First, any registered Virginia voter could apply to serve on the commission. From those applications, a panel of five retired judges would nominate five Republicans, five Democrats and 12 unaffiliated voters.
The General Assembly’s influence would be exercised by the speaker and minority leader in the House of Delegates and the majority leader and minority leader in the Senate. Those four would have a say in naming the panel of judges. Subsequently, in a process modeled after jury selection, each would “strike” three candidates from the judges’ nominees: one from the other party and two independents.
The result would be a commission of three Republicans, three Democrats and four independents.
We are both trial attorneys. From our personal experience with jury selection, we are convinced that this “strike” method would produce a qualified commission that would work sincerely to deliver fair districts.
As further protection against any partisan imbalance, to be adopted, a map would require seven votes, including at least one Republican and one Democrat. Once adopted, the commission’s maps would be final, not subject to amendment or veto by the General Assembly or governor.
Some may ask why a constitutional amendment is required, rather than a simple change in law. Laws can be reversed by whatever party is in power, and human nature means gerrymandering will always be tempting. Embedding the process in the Virginia constitution is the best — the only — way for the people of Virginia to put this citizens-first reform beyond tampering hands.