Virginia Democratic Party urges voters to defeat redistricting reform amendment

By: - June 24, 2020 12:03 am

The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Democratic Party of Virginia is officially urging voters to oppose a proposed constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting commission that, if approved in November, would redraw the state’s political maps starting in 2021.

The proposal —  the compromise product of years’ worth of anti-gerrymandering advocacy — caused a major split among Democrats in this year’s legislative session, with most Senate Democrats strongly supporting it and most House Democrats adamantly opposed. Nine House Democrats joined with 45 Republicans to pass the amendment and send it to voters in a November ballot referendum.

The party’s resolution — adopted at its virtual convention over the weekend — is the strongest sign yet of how sharply many Democrats have shifted course after their elected legislators overwhelmingly supported the same proposal in 2019. That was before they took control of the General Assembly, winning the power to redraw the maps themselves under the state’s existing redistricting system.

Democratic participants in the convention adopted the resolution in a package of policy positions approved by a 1469-233 vote. 

The text echoes criticisms Democratic opponents leveled against the measure earlier this year, saying it leaves Republican minorities and conservative judges on the Supreme Court of Virginia with too much power to draw maps that don’t reflect Virginia’s political preferences.

If the commission is approved and the state ends up with Republican-friendly congressional and legislative maps, the resolution says, it could mean “ the loss of the Democratic the majority in the House of Delegates as early as 2021 and the Senate by 2023” and potentially leave Democrats “unable to retake the majority in either body despite representing a substantial and growing majority of Virginia’s population.” 

Sens. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Lousie Lucas, D-Portsmouth, two senior Democrats who partnered with redistricting reform group OneVirginia2021 to get the proposal through the legislature, condemned their party’s vote but called it a “minor setback.”

“We are profoundly disappointed that some members of the DPVA would choose to push a resolution against an amendment that would end racial, partisan and prison gerrymandering in Virginia once and for all,” the senators said in a statement distributed by OneVirginia2021. “Democrats have been at the forefront of this fight for many years, this flies in the face of our longtime commitment to fairer electoral maps.”

The Republican Party of Virginia concurred, in slightly stronger terms.

The resolution that the DPVA adopted this weekend is a slap in the face to the thousands of Virginians that voted them into office under the guise of fair redistricting,” RPV Chairman Jack Wilson said in a statement.

Democratic critics of the proposal point out that it was their party that pushed truly independent, nonpartisan redistricting commissions year after year only to see them blocked by Republican majorities.

The House of Delegates and congressional maps approved in 2011 drew several legal challenges, with federal courts finding that some districts were racially gerrymandered.

The bipartisan measure that first passed in 2019, the final year of GOP General Assembly control, calls for a 16-member commission. Half of the members would be state legislators, with equal representation from the two major parties and the two chambers. The other eight seats would go to citizen members.

Any two members from the same party and the same chamber could block maps they don’t like, a provision opponents feel opens the door to gamesmanship but supporters say incentivizes the two chambers and two parties to work together.

Racial concerns also became a flashpoint in the legislative debate, with several members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus saying the commission concept didn’t do enough to ensure diversity on the commission itself or prohibit racial gerrymandering. Supporters noted that the amendment includes language spelling out that the commission has to follow the federal Voting Rights Act, which aims to preserve minority voting power.

The Democratic resolution notes that the party will encourage local committees to highlight its opposition to the amendment on sample ballots distributed for Election Day.

Asked if the party is planning any other outreach to try to defeat the amendment, DPVA spokesman Grant Fox said “any other action is up to the steering committee to vote on.”

Though some Democratic lawmakers are now openly sparring with OneVirginia2021 over the amendment, the group’s standing doesn’t appear to have slipped among the national redistricting reform movement.

On Tuesday, the organization participated in a press call with other reform groups to discuss ballot initiatives around the country and hear a pep talk from former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican and early redistricting reform proponent.

“The politicians will do everything they can, Democrats and Republicans, I remind you, will do anything they can to derail you,” Schwarzenegger said. “To derail us.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.