Stephen J. Farnsworth directs the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington. Kate Seltzer is a research associate at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies.
If Republicans lose their narrow majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate next month, Democrats will have complete control of drawing the lines for legislative districts following the 2020 Census. If that happens, would Democrats abandon efforts that seemed so appealing when they were in the minority?
As Richmond has grown increasingly to reflect the partisan trench warfare found in Washington, there might be little interest in unilateral disarmament. Democrats, who have not held complete control of the redistricting process since just after the 1990 Census, might not want to give up something they have sought for so long.
The power to draw political lines is not trivial. Recent redistricting cycles demonstrate that, on average, the ability to shape districts can increase a majority party’s margin by six seats or more in the 100-member House of Delegates and an additional seat or two in the 40-member Senate.
A resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to establish an independent redistricting commission passed in 2019, and the measure will be before lawmakers again in 2020. If it’s approved a second time next winter, voters could decide whether to adopt the amendment later that year, just in time for the 2021 redistricting process that would follow the 2020 Census.
Depending on what happens Nov. 5, that might be a big if. A new statewide poll conducted in September by Research America Inc. for the University of Mary Washington suggests that supporters of this proposed constitutional amendment have not been effective in promoting it to residents of the commonwealth.
The UMW poll last month asked 1,009 residents whether they favored taking the power to draw legislative lines away from the state legislature or not. Respondents deadlocked: 42 percent favored the constitutional amendment, 40 percent opposed it and the rest were undecided.
Despite all the attention the topic received in Richmond last winter, the 2019 survey results were not much different from previous polls. A statewide survey by UMW in September 2018, for example, revealed that 40 percent favored the constitutional amendment and 45 percent opposed the idea.
As Republican legislative majorities have shriveled, and as the party has lost a series of statewide elections, it has become more supportive of anti-gerrymandering legislation.
New Democratic majorities, if they emerge, might use this divided public opinion as justification for hitting the brakes on creating an independent line-drawing process. They could kill the measure at an early-morning committee or subcommittee or propose a different anti-gerrymandering amendment, which would push the calendar for final approval of the replacement amendment beyond the 2021 redistricting deadline.
Although a new Democratic majority might be tempted to keep that power for its own use, that would undermine its long-term commitment to greater citizen empowerment. The idea behind an independent redistricting commission is to ensure a more inclusive and transparent process, as well as more competitive elections. Politicians of both parties have gerrymandered to their advantage decade after decade. That self-dealing process has to stop.
Democratic candidates routinely promise governance based on principle, and they should stick to that commitment. They can, and should, do better for Virginians than their predecessors — of both parties — have done.