With redistricting reform, we can be stewards of our own communities

January 30, 2020 12:01 am

The 1812 political cartoon that helped popularize the “Gerry-mander,” named for Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. (Public domain)

By Golden Bethune-Hill 

For the past decade, manipulated maps and unfairly drawn district lines have watered down the power of too many Virginians’ votes. Politicians, who were more interested in amassing power than improving life for everyone, gerrymandered the commonwealth and left poorer folks out in the cold. 

I’ve seen this first-hand in my communities of Newport News and Hampton, Virginia. There’s a whole lot to love about my area, but there’s an equal amount of issues that need fixing — health care being one of those items. For years, I was bothered by how many of my friends and neighbors had to make due without regular doctor’s appointments. Too many families here struggle with illnesses that could have been preventable and successfully treated. 

I knew what my community was going though, and I knew that I could step up and make a difference. Nearly 10 years ago, my husband and I founded the Community Free Clinic of Newport News, where we’ve been improving the health outcomes of our community ever since. I saw a major problem, felt that I could make a positive change and took action. 

At the clinic, my colleagues and I get a powerful sense of satisfaction from being able to improve the lives of our residents. However, there’s a bigger issue that needs to be addressed, and it also serves as the root cause for health care inequality throughout the commonwealth — rampant gerrymandering all across Virginia. 

Much like I did when I founded my clinic, Virginia House Delegate Marcia Price has stepped up and addressed a critical issue facing our community. She saw how a closed-door, exclusionary redistricting process set our home on a path of ever-increasing inequality. She knows what sort of damage has been done, and now she’s leading from the front with her latest proposal for an independent redistricting process in 2021. 

A born-and-raised resident of Newport News, Delegate Price put forward a bill that could bring Virginia closer to true equality among its residents. She crafted a bill that demands transparency, looks out of communities of color and protects against one party obstructing progress. I believe this to be the best opportunity to transform Virginia from one of the worst gerrymandered states in the country to a place where residents from all walks of life have a seat at the table. 

I am especially encouraged by the reform’s commitment to ensuring increased transparency through the whole redistricting process. Too often, communities like my own are excluded from important decisions that enormously affect their livelihoods. It’s hard to blame some of my discouraged neighbors who feel that their vote doesn’t actually matter. They’ve felt cheated by the politicians who systematically reduced their voting power through gerrymandering. 

Some of the country’s most manipulated maps, like those found in Virginia, are borne out of a process that intentionally excludes communities of color and offers no opportunity for public input. With her proposal, Delegate Price intends to shed light on redistricting and ensure that people of color have ample time to actively participate in hearings. With a more diverse group of people comes a more diverse set of views and opinions. And if we turn Delegate Price’s bill into law, we’ll set the stage for a process that’s built to actually listen to all Virginians. 

We also need reform that prevents members of one party, no matter if they are Democrats or Republicans, to obstruct progress and prevent the redistricting process from moving forward. Delegate Price’s reform should serve as a reminder to politicians that their job is not to serve themselves and increase their own party’s influence, but to work on behalf of their constituents. This is how government should actually function — setting aside differences in order to find a compromise that will benefit the people. 

I want to commend Delegate Price for her leadership and for working to better her own hometown. She called out gerrymandering as blatant cheating and worked to create a plan that could help repair our broken political system. She’s done watching lawmakers siphon political influence from voters only to fuel their own political aspirations. Virginians deserve a real voice, and her plan for independent redistricting reform is our best opportunity to return power to the people.

Golden Bethune-Hill is a registered nurse and a founder of The Free Clinic in Newport News, where she is the volunteer executive director. She was the lead plaintiff in the 2017 Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections case.


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