Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., speaks outside of the United States Supreme Court after oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford to call for an end to partisan gerrymandering on October 3, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

Virginia has an important decision to make. Its General Assembly should pass the constitutional amendment for redistricting, signaling to other southern states a new era of nondiscriminatory access to the ballot box.

Gerrymandering, where legislators draw district lines to benefit themselves and preserve their seats, is a form of voter suppression because it takes power from voters. Some voices end up more powerful than others.

The critically important Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed state and local barriers to black voters. The VRA required states that engaged in these practices to “pre-clear” with the Department of Justice any new elections laws, in order to make sure that suppressive or discriminating voting laws were not implemented. 

Virginia was one of those states, actively suppressing access to the ballot box, just as it fought against desegregating schools. For years, it was subject to federal review of its new elections laws. Now that the Supreme Court has eliminated pre-clearance formulas, southern —  and northern — states have implemented discriminatory voting laws.  The commonwealth should step into voting rights leadership and away from its shameful past. Virginia can model for all states, especially those formerly under pre-clearance, how to improve its redistricting system instead of gerrymandering. 

Model redistricting systems involve commissions with citizen input and no favoritism of any political party or incumbent. The creation of a citizen commission can be an uphill battle even in states that allow ballot initiatives. After Florida voters approved strict nonpartisan criteria for redistricting through a ballot measure in 2010, the legislature ignored the new constitutional language and drew a partisan gerrymander. After the League of Women Voters and other reformers sued, the courts redrew the maps in 2015, in compliance with the state Constitution. 

Polls show the overwhelming majority of Virginians want an end to gerrymandering. A new day has dawned. Virginia has the opportunity to shake off the shackles of voter suppression and return the voice to the people. Legislators must act on voters’ strong support for reform. 

Last year, the Virginia legislature took a bipartisan first step in passing a constitutional amendment that would create fair redistricting and require the drawing of election lines in accordance with laws that address racial and ethnic fairness. Now it is up to lawmakers to finish the job.  The only way to add citizen members to a binding/meaningful redistricting commission is through a constitutional amendment. The only way to ensure against legislative shenanigans is through a constitutional amendment.  This is why we support HJ71 and SJ18. In addition, HB758, SB203, and SB204 establish necessary criteria for how the commission is formed, how it draws boundaries and how the court mediates problems with proposed maps.

The door is open for Virginia legislators to create the first citizens’ redistricting commission in the South, turning away from the long history of racial and partisan gerrymandering by both parties. This reform is a compromise that gives citizens a seat at the table, creates a commission that reflects the diversity of the commonwealth and shines a light on the process. We urge the Virginia General Assembly to set an example for our states to follow.

We, the League of Women Voters presidents in southern, traditionally gerrymandered states, welcome the efforts of Virginians to set a standard of fairness for all voters.

Signed,

  • Deb Wake, president, League of Women Voters of Virginia
  • Christy Wheeler and Carol Anderson, co-presidents, League of Women Voters of Mississippi
  • Christe McCoy-Lawrence and Holley Ulbrich, co-presidents, League of Women Voters of South Carolina
  • Carol Moon Goldberg, president, League of Women Voters of California
  • Barbara Caddell, president, League of Women Voters of Alabama
  • Jo Nichols, president, League of Women Voters of North Carolina.

The League of Women Voters has created the People Powered Fair Maps™ campaign: a 50-state (and the District of Columbia) plan to combat gerrymandering and put power back in the hands of voters.