The amendment would not remove politics from redistricting. But as a tough compromise struck between Democrats and Republicans in Richmond, it would form a thoroughly bipartisan commission that would forge voting districts — not in hidden backrooms, as has been the practice for decades, but in public, for all to see.
To imagine that rejecting the amendment, and leaving redistricting in the hands of the legislature, would produce fairer and more balanced maps is to believe in leprechauns and forest sprites. Yet that is precisely what many elected Democrats are asking Virginia voters to believe now that they have taken exclusive control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in a generation.
The Democrats piously argued for redistricting reform for years when they were in the legislative minority, suffering as Republicans rammed through maps that enabled GOP politicians to choose their voters in what amounted to an incumbent-protection racket for many lawmakers. Then, when Democrats regained control of the state Senate and House of Delegates a year ago, suddenly many of them had a better idea — namely, they could do unto the GOP what the GOP had done unto them. Even the new House speaker, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), who supported the amendment last year, embraced the hypocrisy and opposed it this year.
In fact, the arguments against the amendment amount to an attack on the good in the name of the perfect. Democrats say Republicans on the redistricting commission might try to cause a deadlock, thereby shifting the drafting process to an expert named by the state Supreme Court, a majority of whose judges are conservatives picked by the former GOP-dominated legislature. But it is highly unlikely that a map drawn under the court’s auspices would be as partisan as those produced by the legislature. The judges are well aware that a nakedly slanted map would be rejected by federal courts, much as the U.S. Supreme Court twice rejected the GOP-drawn map after the 2010 Census.
A dozen or so states have adopted some form of redistricting reform in recent years; Virginia’s is as good or better than most. It allows bright sunshine into a procedure that has been shielded from scrutiny and promotes balance in place of blatant power politics.
If the constitutional amendment is approved by Virginia voters, they would be the likely winners, and baldfaced partisan gerrymandering in Richmond would sustain a mortal blow.