Signs at a polling location in Buckingham County, Va., November 3, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)
The nonpartisan group that led the charge to reform Virginia’s redistricting process is relaunching with a broader “democracy reform” focus and a push for more ranked-choice voting.
The next iteration of OneVirginia2021, which spent years advocating to take redistricting power away from the General Assembly and give it to a more politically neutral map-drawing commission, will be called UpVote Virginia, according to an announcement from the group Tuesday morning.
In the organization’s launch video, Executive Director Liz White, who held the same role at OneVirginia2021, characterized the new initiative as a way to build on recent reforms that have made it easier for Virginians to vote and produced “some of the fairest legislative maps in America.”
“It seems like every day there’s news stories about how our representative democracy is failing voters. There’s extreme polarization, legislative gridlock and no incentive at all for our elected officials to come together to solve the problems that face us,” White said. “But here in Virginia, voters are already standing up and effecting change by focusing on foundational, nonpartisan solutions that can improve our democracy.”
OneVirginia2021, which was founded in 2014, has drawn pushback for its role in implementing a new redistricting process some Democratic critics argued was deeply flawed, but nonpartisan experts have generally given the resulting legislative congressional maps high marks for partisan fairness. The new maps — which were drawn by experts under supervision from the Supreme Court of Virginia after the bipartisan redistricting commission collapsed in a partisan stalemate — have not been challenged in court, despite critics’ claims the new process didn’t do enough to end racial and partisan gerrymandering.
White said her group’s new mission will also include promoting government transparency and ethics, encouraging voter participation and advocating for a more independent redistricting commission after the 2021 commission’s efforts collaped due to partisan gridlock, a failure that shifted the process to the Supreme Court.
But ranked-choice voting, which is already used in several other states, was the marquee topic discussed during Tuesday’s bipartisan rollout.
Former Gov. George Allen, a Republican, touted the Virginia GOP’s successful use of ranked-choice voting at its nominating convention last year, which produced a slate of statewide candidates that swept the 2021 elections.
“It brought unity,” Allen said of the GOP’s nominating method. “There was respect for the process.”
The Republican Party of Virginia was able to implement ranked-choice voting under its own rules for the party’s 2021 convention. The system is currently not an option for open, government-run primary elections for state offices.
Speaking after Allen, U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Alexandria, talked up the need to strengthen democracy after seeing “a former president and his allies try to overturn a free and fair election” and the rise of “extreme polarization” and mistrust of institutions.
“This is an issue that really puts the will of the voters front and center,” Beyer said of ranked-choice voting.
Skeptics of ranked-choice voting have argued it’s too complicated and cumbersome, and some have doubts about whether voters and candidates would find the change to be as smooth as proponents think it would be.
The concept, which allows voters to rank which candidates they like best instead of casting a ballot for a single person, is often touted as a way to reduce negative campaigning and incentivize candidates to appeal to a broad cross-section of voters instead of the most fervent partisans.
Ranked-choice voting is already on the books for local elections in Virginia, but localities haven’t rushed to adopt it during the COVID-19 pandemic. No cities or counties have implemented the system after the General Assembly passed legislation in 2020 making it an option. A handful of localities are considering making the switch to ranked-choice voting, and UpVote Virginia says it will work to encourage more local officials to embrace it.
Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, who sponsored the ranked-choice voting legislation, has also organized a nonprofit group, Ranked Choice Virginia, to spread the word about the option.
Last year, Virginia’s State Board of Elections approved regulations laying out the finer details of ranked-choice voting, including ballot layouts, counting procedures and educational materials for voters explaining how the system works.
Speaking at the new group’s launch event, Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a former Democratic candidate for governor in Massachusetts, said ranked-choice voting can also encourage “non-traditional candidates” to run for office
“A lot of people have felt locked out of voice and choice,” Allen said. “And ranked-choice voting is the answer to that problem.”
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