The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Bobby Vassar

In Virginia, and across the country, the Democratic Party is currently wrangling over a consequential issue — and it’s not about impeachment or the 2020 presidential candidates. It’s what to do about gerrymandering.

I have long believed in comprehensive redistricting reform in Virginia, and have admired the work of many organizations working toward this goal — including OneVirginia2021 (full disclosure: I serve on the board) and the group founded by former Attorney General Eric Holder, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. The NRDC is billed as a centralized hub for executing a comprehensive redistricting strategy that shifts the redistricting power, creating fair districts where Democrats can compete.

Put bluntly, politicians have rigged our democracy against the voters themselves. In Virginia, the 2011 maps contained districts intended to protect incumbents from both sides of the aisle. And as much as it pains me to say this as a lifelong Democrat, members of both parties share the blame for the costly and contentious lawsuits over the last decade.

This isn’t to say that there’s an equivalency between both parties in redistricting abuses across the country. Consider Project REDMAP, an effort led by GOP operatives to redraw as many congressional districts as possible in their favor following a midterm victory in 2010. The results were immediate.

In 2012, for example, 1.4 million more Americans voted for Democrats for Congress, but Republicans won a 33-seat majority in Congress. And the problem hasn’t gotten better. In 2016, despite winning fewer than half of all votes for Congress, Republicans again won a 33-seat majority. In battleground states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, and right here in Virginia, the make-up of state legislatures are wildly different than the voting population.

And since 2010, Democrats have overwhelmingly been in favor of reforming the way state legislatures draw district lines. To be clear: there are notable exceptions where Democrats have gerrymandered, including Maryland, Illinois, and Massachusetts — but on the whole, redistricting reform advocates have seen strong support from leading liberals. 

Here in Virginia, for example, reform efforts have been supported by Sen. Tim Kaine, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Gov. Ralph Northam and Sen. Mark Warner — not to mention several noteworthy conservative voices like former Gov. George Allen.

Nationally, consider President Barack Obama’s final year in office. One of his defining policy goals was to promote redistricting reform by taking his fight to end gerrymandering to deep blue territory — the Illinois legislature. And although the 44th president’s adopted home state rejected his advice, 2018 nonetheless brought major redistricting reform victories in states all over the map and the political spectrum — including Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah.

And earlier this year, reform advocates had a historic legislative victory right here in Virginia, when a constitutional amendment passed its first hurdle in the General Assembly with overwhelming bi-partisan support in both legislative chambers.

And although this legislative momentum in Virginia sounds fairly straightforward, the prospects of losing the power to gerrymander safe districts does not sit well with some.

Since the passage of the amendment in February, some Democrats have loudly criticized the plan, and since the recent power shift to Democrats in the legislature, a small number have begun to back away from it entirely.

This marks a tangible shift among some Democrats who once wanted to make redistricting fair and non-partisan, but who would now treat our collective voting rights as a commodity to be traded.

This political divide isn’t totally unexpected. The Democratic Party has been having this conversation publicly following the profoundly disappointing Supreme Court decision in Rucho v. Common Cause, which bars the federal courts from hearing cases involving partisan gerrymandering.

There are some who argue that bipartisan redistricting reform efforts would handcuff the Democratic Party by continuing to kowtow to the same state Republican parties that rigged the previous redistricting process. The gerrymandering Maryland Democrats have used this line of thinking for decades, and now it has permeated south of the Potomac to several high-profile Virginia Democrats as well.

Some in my party feel that compromise proposals like the one we passed in Virginia are red herrings that would ultimately ensure a new set of shenanigans that Republicans have done across the country.

And while you won’t find pushback from me about whether or not state GOP representatives fight fairly (they don’t), my argument is far less cynical: the Democratic Party should not give in to the temptation to right this ship by playing by a different set of unfair rules. 

For perspective, Democrats won all three statewide offices and came within a coin flip of winning control of the House in 2017 DESPITE Republican gerrymandered districts.  And we won control of both chambers of the Legislature in 2019 in the absence of partisan gerrymandered districts. 

And from a good public policy standpoint, if redistricting regulations are made in a bipartisan way with transparency, citizen involvement and rules prohibiting parties or factions outnumbering one another, the Democratic Party would still be successful. 

In other words, my party should not try to figure out ways to use its own political power in inappropriate ways, but rather should stand for policies that take map-drawing power away from the backroom political deals of the past. 

Despite what some might have you believe, organizations like the NDRC are not front organizations intended to rig maps in favor of the Democratic Party. Quite the contrary.  Neither Eric Holder nor Barack Obama would put their names on such an effort. This is a fundamental fight for fairness.

Take New Jersey as a recent example. Earlier this year, the state Democratic Party tried to use the power it had to gerrymander district lines in their favor. This was a power grab, plain and simple. The NDRC condemned it then and I’ll condemn it again right now. 

I would be equally as vocal if a similar scenario played out here in Virginia — particularly after all of the significant progress that has been made in the last several months and years.

The amendment that was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in February is not perfect — compromises rarely are. But it is still an enormous step forward to make political gerrymandering a thing of the past in Virginia. 

Compare the provisions in the proposed amendment to the hyper-partisan status quo: First, this would mark the first time in Virginia’s history that citizens would have a voice in the redistricting process. 

Further, the makeup of the commission would effectively eliminate gerrymandering dominated by one party, moving ahead of states like Maryland and North Carolina. And all meetings, minutes and data will be completely open to the public, which will serve as a necessary check on the commission’s work and allow the public to be watchdogs on our government.

It is also important to point out that if this amendment were to pass again in 2020, it would be the most comprehensive redistricting legislation that has ever passed through a state legislature. Period.

This is incredibly significant, which is why it is particularly disheartening to see some Virginia Democrats reconsidering their votes or positions on it. 

To be clear, there are still a few ways to statutorily improve the redistricting process before the 2020 census.

For example, Virginia could pass bills that have clearer criteria that keep existing communities together, require the commission to reflect the diversity of our Commonwealth, and explicit rules that prohibit using political data while drawing district lines.

But starting from scratch is not an option, given the laws surrounding the implementation of constitutional amendments. It is quite literally now or never.

And since Virginia Democrats will control both chambers of the General Assembly come January, I urge anybody that cares about fundamental fairness in our elections to remind their representatives how historic their opportunity could be in 2020.

In his last State of the Union Address, President Obama said that America had “to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” and that state legislatures should “let a bipartisan group do it.”

Right now, we have the opportunity to do just that and end partisan gerrymandering in Virginia once and for all. Let’s heed President Obama’s call. Because it’s not about politics, it’s about fairness.

Bobby Vassar

Bobby Vassar recently retired as chief counsel and legislative director to Democratic U.S. Congressman Robert C. Scott and received an undergraduate degree from Norfolk State University and his law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law.