Lest they forget, Democrats can also push the Old Dominion a critical step closer to fixing a long-standing defect by leveling the electoral playing field and, in the process, empowering Virginia voters to choose their candidates, rather than the other way around. We’re speaking of a proposed state constitutional amendment on redistricting reform, which would strike a badly needed and much-delayed blow against gerrymandering in a state where it has been common practice.
For years, this page has skewered politicians of both parties — in Virginia, Maryland and elsewhere — for using ever more sophisticated computer models to fine-tune the electoral map to their own advantage, drawing maps for congressional and state legislative districts that are job-protection rackets for incumbents. By slicing and dicing communities, counties, towns and cities, lawmakers have ensured their own holds on power — and shamelessly manipulated unsuspecting voters.
Federal judges, backed by the Supreme Court, gave Virginia a wake-up call by ordering a redo last year of the state legislative map drawn by Republicans in 2011. (An equally if not more egregious congressional map was drawn by Democrats the same year in Maryland.) That prompted a rethink by GOP lawmakers in Richmond, who had long opposed redistricting reform. After extensive wrangling, the two parties agreed on an amendment to the state constitution that would establish a 16-member bipartisan commission — eight lawmakers, named by their respective party caucuses, plus eight citizens named by a panel of retired judges — that would redraw legislative and congressional maps once a decade, starting after the 2020 Census. The General Assembly adopted the plan this year.
Under the state’s constitution, the same legislation must pass again next year — with nary a word or comma changed. That means Democrats, who pushed for reform when they were in the minority, must embrace the same principle now that they will constitute the statehouse majority. Any fiddling around will smack of hypocrisy and opportunism. Gov. Ralph Northam, who has embraced the reform in the past, must do so again now that his party holds the reins of power. Final approval would be in the hands of Virginia voters, who would give thumbs up or down on the 2020 ballot.
There can be no turning back. It will be up to Democratic leaders to smack down any talk from their own backbenchers of a gerrymander that would cement the party’s power. Democratic arrogance would be as repugnant to voters as the Republican version. By reenacting the constitutional amendment, Democrats could seize the high ground and preempt GOP accusations that they harbor a radical agenda. Redistricting reform is that rare commodity: good governance that doubles as smart politics.