Virginia should lead the way on redistricting reform
The 1812 political cartoon that helped popularize the “Gerry-mander,” named for Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. (Public domain)
By Sam Wang, Aaron Barden and Jason Rhode
This year, Virginia once again has the chance to act as history-maker. Amendment 1 on the statewide ballot will create a hybrid, bipartisan redistricting commission that meaningfully includes citizens for the first time. We are proud to endorse Amendment 1 because never before has the commonwealth seen such an open and transparent redistricting process. Such citizen involvement will help protect communities that have split up in the past.
Thanks to Virginia’s lengthy constitutional amendment mechanism, Amendment 1 has traveled a long road. In 2019, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the first reading of a constitutional amendment to create the Virginia Redistricting Commission. It was an unlikely bipartisan achievement.
In 2020, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed the amendment a second time, again on a bipartisan basis. A number of House Democrats switched to “nay” votes, bringing about a much closer margin than in 2019. Nevertheless, the amendment succeeded and will go before the voters this November. According to polls from 2019 and 2020, a supermajority of the public is in favor of Amendment 1’s passage.
This desire for reform is the result of decades of gerrymandering by both sides. Unfair maps were drawn that minimized the power of communities of color and communities of interest.
For example, in the last cycle, both the Republican-drawn House map and Democrat-drawn Senate map split Virginia’s only majority-minority county: Prince William County. Rather than placing the county’s significant Hispanic community into one district, the Republicans’ House map splits Prince William eight times while the Democrats’ Senate map splits the county five times.
Similar splits in Richmond and Hampton Roads were the basis for redistricting litigation that redrew parts of both the House of Delegates and Congressional maps.
To prevent communities from getting carved up in 2021, Virginia needs to enshrine Amendment 1’s open and transparent process into the state Constitution. As noted by the redistricting experts at the Brennan Center for Justice, “[t]o ascertain whether a community of interest exists, public input is essential.”
But current Virginia law has no public input requirements. Indeed, without Amendment 1, there is no guarantee that the General Assembly will include the public at all, and history illustrates this point. In 2011, both chambers — each controlled by one of the major parties — ignored the suggestions offered by Gov. Bob McDonnell’s commission and by the statewide redistricting competition. Instead, the General Assembly passed a bipartisan gerrymander that provided a 100 percent re-election rate in 2015.
Under Amendment 1, however, public input and involvement are constitutionally required in the process. The citizens will be heard. To bolster public comment, a group of Princeton undergraduates and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project have developed a free online mapping tool called Representable that allows Virginians to draw their communities of interest.
With Representable, marginalized communities can draw maps, bring them to the commission’s public hearings, and show the commission where they live and who they are. Drawing and labeling communities in this way will go a long way to preventing community splits in 2021.
For this reason, Representable should be used by all communities, including those that favor Amendment 1 and those who oppose it. Whatever their position, each citizen has the right to be represented at public hearings in the coming cycle. Only by hearing from all of Virginia’s communities will Amendment 1’s public hearings requirement have its desired effect: a more equitable, open and inclusive process.
What’s more, Amendment 1’s public input process will help ensure the success of last session’s redistricting criteria bill, which now requires that districts protect communities of interest. And, contrary to legislative belief, the Supreme Court of Virginia will most likely follow these rules. As we wrote in a February 2020 report, for a number of reasons, the court would most likely “restrain itself to what the Constitution and Code of Virginia require for line-drawing,” including provisions that protect communities of interest.
The commonwealth is the latest in a line of states committing to transferring line-drawing power to the people through a redistricting commission. Just as important, Virginia is on the cusp of being the first Southern state to do so. Furthermore, Amendment 1 is the only redistricting reform ballot measure left standing in 2020.
Virginia should lead the way: A vote for Amendment 1 would bring the public and the commonwealth’s marginalized communities into the redistricting process, as well as open a path for similar efforts in the rest of the region, and the country.
Dr. Samuel Wang, a Princeton University professor, neuroscientist, psephologist and author, is the director and founder of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. Aaron Barden was mostly recently legal and policy analyst at the project before beginning a new career with a law firm in Washington, D.C. Jason Rhode is national coordinator for the project, which does nonpartisan analysis to understand and eliminate partisan gerrymandering at a state-by-state level.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.