But when Hofeller died last summer, he left behind a treasure trove of memos, draft maps and emails that suggest Republicans not only illegally used racial data to redraw North Carolina maps that had been ruled an unconstitutional racial gerrymander but also misled the court about it.
We don’t need more evidence that politicians of all persuasions will test the very limits of the law in search of maps that lock in partisan advantages and insulate themselves from voters. Recent lawsuits in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania have overturned both Democratic and Republican maps as unconstitutional and transformed gerrymandering from a wonky topic that made eyes glaze over into something that voters nationwide now understand as a serious threat to representative democracy.
Here in Virginia, meanwhile, something just as exciting happened: Politicians responded to the demands of voters and stepped up with an impressive reform package that would make Virginia’s elections more competitive and the legislature more responsive to the people.
That secrecy preached by Hofeller and partisans of all sides? It won’t be possible here when new maps are drawn after the 2020 Census. For the first time, maps will be drawn under rigorous open meetings and open data requirements. No one will be able to draw maps behind closed doors. The open data will help watchdog organizations and neutral academics analyze the partisan bias of districts in real time.
The commission responsible for drawing maps will include eight citizens and eight legislators, evenly divided by party, and a supermajority of both sides will be necessary to approve a map. That requires genuine consensus, compromise and fairness to all sides.
Politicians usually do a lousy job of regulating themselves. But if this moves forward, it would be the strongest set of redistricting reforms to ever emerge from a state legislature in American history.
Fear, after all, is a powerful motivator: No one knows who might hold the upper hand in 2021. This deal would ensure both sides a seat at the table.
Trouble is, Virginia law requires a state constitutional amendment to pass the state legislature again next year before it can head to voters for final approval.
Now some Democrats, perhaps intent on doing to Republicans what the GOP did so effectively to them over the past decade, are suggesting they’d scuttle the compromise now that the General Assembly has flipped blue and they have trifecta control for the first time since the 1990s. This is a dangerous and losing game.
Some Democratic criticisms are fair and worthy of debate, including the lack of provisions about the commission’s diversity requirements and specifically prohibiting the use of political data while drawing the lines. But instead of starting from scratch, Democrats should rally behind the bipartisan amendment in conjunction with specific complementary legislation. These bills include adding clearer criteria to keep existing communities together, requiring the commission’s members to reflect Virginia’s diversity and including specific rules to prohibit all forms of gerrymandering while drawing district lines.
All compromises can be improved. But they must also be compromises. It’s time to come together on voting rights, the cornerstone of democracy. District lines provide the building blocks. When they are unfairly twisted by politicians to suit their own ends, not only do citizens lose faith in elections, but it also distorts policy, deepens divisions and accelerates dysfunction.
If Democrats threw this meaningful reform away to attain partisan advantage of their own, they would also cast aside the high ground on voting rights.
It’s undeniable that most national gerrymandering during the 2010 cycle was done by Republicans. It would be disastrous, however, for Democrats to respond with more gerrymandering of their own, and it would be the wrong way to build consensus behind the party’s agenda.
A confident party, confident that its ideas are supported by the public, would instead demand fair maps, remove barriers to voting and participation and insist on meaningful, competitive elections.
There’s another advantage: When politicians feel secure in their ideas and have genuine support from voters, they don’t have to worry about securing their digital files from embarrassing revelations from the afterlife.