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Wyatt Durrette column: Virginia constitutional amendment to create citizens commission to put fair elections first in redrawing legislative districts

December 19, 2018

From an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Two months ago, I was privileged to have space on this page to tell readers about a committee working to correct the system that lets politicians draw election districts in Virginia which favor their party or put their opponents at a disadvantage. Abused by both parties, that system deprives voters of real choices in elections, which undermines democracy itself. Today, I can report that the committee has proposed an amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would create a citizens redistricting commission to draw the commonwealth’s legislative districts, rather than leave the job in the hands of the legislators themselves.

The amendment will be introduced by bipartisan sponsors in the 2019 General Assembly session, which begins on Jan. 9. Crucially, it must win initial approval in this session to begin a two-year process that would put this citizens-first system in effect for the next complete redrawing of Virginia’s political map in 2021.

The values of democracy, not partisan politics, were our primary concern as the committee of Republicans, Democrats, and election law experts sought a better way — a Virginia way — to draw legislative districts. Recognizing that redistricting and the legislature have been entangled since the beginning of the Republic, the committee did not eliminate the General Assembly from the process, but it reduced the legislature’s role and took off the rough edges of party politics.

Politics and principle are balanced in the selection of the commission and in the criteria the commission must apply in drawing new election districts. The leaders of both parties in the General Assembly would have a voice, but not the controlling voice, in choosing the 10-member commission, which must include three Republicans, three Democrats, and four independents. Under the terms of the amendment, the commission is required to produce districts that meet current federal and state requirements but favor no party or incumbent, that follow local boundaries as much as possible, and that do not diminish minority communities’ voting power.

In a formula calculated to ensure fairness, to be adopted a map of districts must win the approval of seven of the 10 members of the commission, including at least one Republican and one Democrat. Once the commission adopts a map, it would be official, and not subject to amendment or veto by the General Assembly or the governor.

Significantly, the amendment dictates that the commission’s data, debates, and decisions must be open and transparent. Unlike the common practice of gerrymandering, no district lines would be changed behind closed doors or in secret midnight meetings.

Ultimately, gerrymandering mocks the principle of majority rule. Americans in state after state see this, and reject it. In the midterm elections, voters in four states overwhelmingly approved proposals to create independent redistricting commissions. The details vary, but the message was the same: Give us back fair elections.

In Virginia, too, the power to draw election districts has been abused by whichever party was in power at redistricting time. Even when power was divided between Democrats and Republicans, as it was in 2011, the old system lent itself to abuse — in that case, by both parties at the same time. A sure indication of that broken system is the litigation still active in federal court challenging districts that were created in 2011!

The frequent refrain from legislators is that the plan was approved by bipartisan majorities in both chambers, but that merely buttresses the obviousness of the “devil’s bargain” between the different parties controlling each chamber and the protection the bizarrely shaped districts provided to incumbents in both parties.

In 2021, all 100 districts of the House of Delegates, 40 districts of the Virginia Senate, and Virginia’s 11 U.S. congressional districts must be redrawn to account for population changes recorded in the 2020 Census. If this amendment is in force then, it would put citizens’ interests ahead of the interests of political parties or incumbents.

But changing our constitution takes two years, so the next few months are critical. The amendment must win initial passage in the upcoming General Assembly session, and again a year later following the elections in November of 2019. If the General Assembly allows it, voters would then have their say in a referendum in 2020.

This citizens committee of Democrats, Republicans, and independent election law experts worked in a spirit of collaboration and compromise to develop a constitutional amendment that ensures integrity in the redistricting process and integrity in the results. We’ve taken the first step. Now it’s the task of the Virginia legislature to do the right thing: approve a fair process for redistricting reform and let the people vote on it.

Wyatt Durrette is a practicing attorney, former legislator, and former Republican candidate for governor of Virginia. He may be contacted at [email protected].