EVER SINCE they regained control of the state legislature in Richmond last fall, Virginia Democrats have hemmed and hawed about prospects for redistricting reform, a cause in whose favor they spoke so stirringly when they were in the minority. For more than two decades in the political wilderness, many Democrats who moaned that gerrymandering had poisoned state politics prescribed nonpartisan redistricting as the antidote.
Now that they’re in the majority, and in a position to impose their own gerrymandered district maps after the 2020 Census if they so choose, it’s time to see what Virginia Democrats stand for: hypocrisy or principle.
A warning sign came the other day from the Democratic Committee in Fairfax County, by far the state’s biggest and most vote-rich jurisdiction. In a resolution citing various fatal flaws, the committee urged the General Assembly to reject a constitutional amendment to establish a nonpartisan redistricting process, which is now nearing a final vote.
What’s fatal in this case is the committee’s fuzzy thinking. And specifically, the real-world fact that without a state constitutional amendment — which the committee says should be put on ice for a decade — the map-drafting that starts next year will inevitably be far more politicized than it would be otherwise.
Like some other wavering Democrats, the Fairfax Democrats said they prefer lawmakers enact measures now to ensure fairly drawn districts, free of gerrymandering. But there is no reason to believe that any legislation enacted by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly would result in a redistricting regime less prone to partisan meddling than the constitutional amendment already on the table. The opposite is far more likely. And most of the flaws identified by the Fairfax panel could be fixed by enabling legislation if the constitutional amendment is approved.
The constitutional amendment, enacted last year when Republicans still controlled both houses of the state legislature, must pass again this year, in identical form, and then be put before voters in a referendum on this fall’s ballot. Only if approved then does the amendment take effect.
It isn’t perfect, which is to say it’s a product of political compromise. It would establish a bipartisan (not nonpartisan) 16-person redistricting commission, half of whose members are legislators (four from each party). It would also retain a role for the entire legislature, whose assent would be required before any new congressional or state legislative voting map took effect. Failing that, new voting district maps would be drafted by an expert selected by the state Supreme Court, which would select the final maps. That court is dominated by conservative justices named by past GOP-controlled legislatures.
The court’s role as final arbiter might incentivize Republicans to promote a deadlock; that’s what some Democrats evidently fear. But courts have a better track record in producing fair maps than legislatures, and the state court would act in the knowledge that its map would likely be rejected by federal courts if it were overtly partisan. That’s what happened to Virginia’s congressional and legislative maps, drafted by the GOP after the 2010 Census, which undercut African American voting clout. That gerrymander backfired — a lesson for parties going forward.
Some Democrats say they want to wait until 2031 to enact a “better” constitutional amendment. That would be a case of reform delayed and denied, and along with it the promise of fairer elections.