Virginia Democrats are making a mistake in denouncing redistricting amendment

June 30, 2020 12:01 am

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, argued unsuccessfully in 2020 for an alternative redistricting amendment that was supported by a majority of Democrats in the House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Just months before voters in the commonwealth choose whether to reduce the blatant gerrymandering that arises every 10 years during redistricting, many Virginia Democrats are now saying, “Never mind.”

Shame on them. 

The process to get such a referendum before voters has been a long, tortuous one, with frequent setbacks because state lawmakers in the majority feared losing control of a rigged process. Republicans benefited in 2011, but Democrats, too, have rejected a fair drawing of district lines in previous decades. 

When it comes to wielding power and putting your opponents in a bind, Democrats and Republicans are equal opportunity offenders. They’d rather choose their voters, instead of voters choosing them.

All of that was supposed to change following this year’s U.S. Census and the redistricting that follows in 2021. State lawmakers in the 2019 and 2020 sessions passed a measure setting up a 16-member, bipartisan commission to reconfigure the congressional and legislative lines. 

But in between the two sessions – following the fall 2019 state elections – control of the General Assembly chambers shifted from the GOP to the Democrats.

Then in late June, the Democratic Party of Virginia urged that voters in November oppose a proposed constitutional amendment to create the redistricting panel. The Virginia Mercury’s Graham Moomaw reported the resolution passed overwhelmingly in a package of policy positions as part of the Dems’ state virtual convention.

It’s true some Democratic legislators were lukewarm on the proposal even before the 2019 elections. Del. Lamont Bagby, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus from Henrico, was one. 

“It was evident that African Americans weren’t fully considered. … And Republicans were taking advantage of individuals that just wanted to get something passed that was said to be redistricting reform,” he said in October 2019. And earlier this year, House Democrats were deeply divided over the amendment.  

However, it’s hypocritical to claim to support fair, compact districts and then oppose the amendment that will be on the ballot this November. Just because some provisions aren’t to Democrats’ liking doesn’t mean legislators or voters should jettison the proposal. 

Here’s why.

Yes, redistricting is a process in which it’s difficult to remove all partisanship. Eight of the panel’s members will be state lawmakers, after all; eight will be citizen members. Gamesmanship can happen in the proposed format – and probably will. 

The commission has to follow the federal Voting Rights Act, however, which tries to preserve minority voting power. Legislators who previously only cared about protecting themselves, fellow incumbents and the majority party will have a new playing field to contend with.

Besides, the 2011 redistricting in Virginia was repeatedly challenged in court, wasting time and money. There’s no guarantee the new bipartisan panel wouldn’t face legal tests, but those questions would probably occur before any redistricting plan is approved.

If voters end up rejecting the proposal in November, we’re back to Square One. Legislative progress in Virginia rarely happens all at once. In my 23 years here, I can think of issues like red-light cameras; allowing released felons to vote; and decriminalization of marijuana – but not legalization – among those that bounce around the Assembly for years. 

The slow-moving incrementalism drives me nuts. Why can’t lawmakers do what’s right and just the first time? 

That’s part of the Virginia Way, I guess.

Republicans have a right to cry foul if the redistricting proposal fails. Democrats might regret it when they’re not in the majority. It’s all the more reason to have foresight – and equity. 

There’s an old saw that “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” The referendum before voters won’t bring utopia to the state every 10 years, but it’s decidedly fairer than what’s in place now. It should produce candidates who have to truly listen to their constituents – instead of cake-walking to victory every two years (state House) or four (state Senate). 

That’s better for all Virginians, no matter their party.

It’s something Democrats should consider. 

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]