Danville Register & Bee
The Commonwealth of Virginia is as close as it has ever been in the last half-century to giving the average citizen control of the government. Redistricting reform, long a dream of good-government advocates, has passed both houses of the General Assembly, but now the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates must reconcile their competing plans in a conference committee.
At stake is whether Virginia citizens will take control of the process or continue to be the victims of hyper-partisan redistricting in which the politicians essentially pick their own voters when redrawing legislative districts after each U.S. Census.
The Virginia Constitution, adopted in 1971, places control of redistricting — drawing new congressional and state legislative districts — in the hands of the General Assembly. The state Senate draws its map and the House draws its map, all with only nominal input from the general public. Long-standing political scores are settled, IOUs called in and party and incumbents protected.
It’s how Danville and Pittsylvania County were split between two Senate districts and two House districts in 2011 after the 2010 U.S. Census. It’s how the Fifth Congressional District was drawn from the tobacco fields of Halifax and Pittsylvania counties on the Southside to Fauquier County in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. It’s how Democrats in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s kept the Republicans in the minority in Richmond; and it’s how Republicans repaid the favor with gusto in the 2000s and ’10s. It’s how Democrats, in the 1981 redistricting, tried to keep African-American districts to a minimum by packing minority voters into as few districts as they could, and it’s how Republicans did the same thing 30 years later in 2011.
And it’s time for that craziness to stop.
For much of the last decade, OneVirginia2021 has been leading the fight to enact nonpartisan redistricting in the commonwealth ahead of 2021, when districts will be redrawn based on population numbers from the 2020 Census. It’s been a daunting task made even more so by Virginia’s cumbersome process for amending the state Constitution. An amendment must be approved — word for word and comma for comma — by two sessions of the General Assembly, with an election of the full legislature in between, before it can be placed on the ballot for voters to approve. This is the final opportunity this decade for the people to take control of the process, as all Assembly seats are up for election in November; if an identical amendment were to pass the 2020 session of the Assembly, voters would have the final say in November 2020 in time for redistricting in the spring of 2021.
Competing redistricting reform plans passed the House and Senate earlier this session; the House plan passed on a straight party-line vote while the Senate’s plan received wide bipartisan support on its way to victory. Both of our two senators, Republicans Bill Stanley (20th District) and Frank Ruff (15th District), supported the final version of the Senate plan. All of our local members of the House of Delegates, however, voted for the far weaker GOP proposal.
The Senate plan, as a whole, is far more preferable to the House plan. In our opinion, the House proposal does next to nothing to remove partisan politics from the process and gives politicians too much behind-the-scenes power. Now the bills are in conference where differences can be ironed out. The conferees have the power to pick portions from each bill to include in a compromise each chamber would then vote on.
On the full transparency of meetings, process and data, they could adopt the Senate language which would provide a modicum of power against gerrymandering. When it comes to splitting municipalities between two or more districts — as most are in Central and Southside Virginia — the conferees could adopt the strict House verbiage against the practice. On the makeup of the committee itself, the Senate’s plan is vastly better than the House plan, in which all 12 members are selected by politicians in the House and Senate and by the governor. The Senate plan is for 16 members with eight appointed by the majority and minority party leaders in the two chambers, while a panel of retired judges would select eight members from an application process open to the public.
And most importantly, there is the chance to eliminate any hint of “incumbent protection” from the process. Neither the House nor the Senate plan does that. Indeed, the House plan would require use of data to draw districts that “preserve the political parity” between the two major parties. OneVirginia2021’s proposed fix is simple: Insert language stating “No district shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor any party or individual.”
This nation’s Founding Fathers believed that all of government’s powers flowed from the people. We in Virginia, “The Mother of Presidents” and the home of Washington, Jefferson and Madison, have the chance to give new life to that belief today.