On Tuesday, November 3, you’ll have a chance to vote on the way Virginia handles redistricting for the next ten years and beyond. Should you vote yes or no? That depends on who you ask.
A single question on the 2020 electoral ballot will decide the fate of the Virginia redistricting system, and determine how voting districts are drawn for the next ten years. But there is significant disagreement about whether voting for Amendment 1 is really the right way to solve Virginia’s gerrymandering problem.
Electoral districts in Virginia are redrawn every ten years. The last time they were redrawn was in 2011, which means that the 2020 election will play a role in deciding how the 2021 district lines are drawn. Amendment 1 will be on the ballot during this election, and will allow Virginia voters to choose who has the power to draw these lines.
Voting YES on the ballot question is a vote for Amendment 1, which will give the power to draw district lines to a sixteen-person bipartisan council, made up of eight legislators and eight citizens, evenly drawn from both political parties. Voting NO is a vote against the amendment, and a vote to leave the power to draw district lines with the General Assembly.
While supporters see this amendment as needed reform for the process of redistricting, opponents say the amendment will lead to more gerrymandering — and will concentrate the power to draw districts into the hands of even fewer people.
Brian Cannon is the executive director of Fair Maps VA, which spun off of One Virginia 2021 but is now a legally separate entity. One Virginia 2021 started in 2013; the Fair Maps VA campaign is a more recent expansion, having started at the end of July.
Fair Maps VA is in support of Amendment 1, and is encouraging Virginians to vote ‘yes’ on the ballot question.
Cannon takes a non-partisan approach to district lines because he says that neither party has avoided gerrymandering. He says that though Republicans have done the majority of racial gerrymandering, Democrats have historically not voted against it because they benefited from it.
“More Democrats voted for the maps than Republicans, though they favored Republicans,” Cannon said, “because the Republicans made the [incumbent] Democrats’ seats safer.”
Cannon says that he himself is a Democrat, but he doesn’t trust the Democratic establishment to draw district lines.
“On the ‘vote yes’ side are all the good government-reform groups; most of them lean left-of-center,” Cannon said. “On the ‘vote no’ side are the Democratic party insiders.”
Cannon said that Richmond is an especially significant place because of how much racial gerrymandering has affected Black voters.
“Partisan and racial gerrymandering are inextricably linked,” Cannon said. “It’s a national phenomenon, but Richmond is a key part of the racial gerrymandering that would dilute Black voices.”
Fair Maps VA’s opposition is Fair Districts VA, a group that was formed recently to oppose Amendment 1.
Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) is on the board of Fair Districts VA. He says that Amendment 1 is “a mess” and that it will lead to even more gerrymandering.
“The four party leaders pick every single person on the commission,” Levine said. “It’s not independent; it’s a commission of the party leaders. An ordinary citizen can’t join.”
Levine said that the amendment will allow party leaders to draw districts that favor them. Its text includes what Levine calls a “poison pill” — a provision that allows two legislators to disband the commission and take the redistricting issue to Virginia’s conservative Supreme Court.
“The heart of the amendment is entirely these words — ‘the districts will be established by the Supreme Court’,” Levine said. “At the end of the day, the Supreme Court decides. The Supreme Court can’t police themselves.”
Levine says that Amendment 1 would have been preferable to redistricting by a Republican-controlled legislature. But now that Virginia has a Democrat-controlled legislature as well as new legislation to combat unfair redistricting practices, Levine says that Amendment 1 is no longer necessary.
“We already have HB 1255, which banned gerrymandering,” Levine said. “The law protects against gerrymandering, but Amendment 1 facilitates it.”
HB 1225 is a bill that was signed into law in April 2020, which provides criteria for drawing legislative districts — including that they must be contiguous and cannot favor one political party over the other, must not “improperly dilute minority populations’ voting power,” and that prison populations must be counted as part of their home districts, and not the district in which they are incarcerated.
Levine also says that racial gerrymandering has been an issue in Virginia.
“Frankly, it’s about time that Black Virginians have a seat at the table,” Levine said. “Minorities who’ve been gerrymandered out of power should have a seat, but this amendment won’t give them that.”
Fair Maps VA has been trying to raise awareness of the amendment in recent months. They have been texting voters through an app called OutVote, writing Op-Eds in newspapers, and purchasing online ads. They hope to buy a TV ad closer to the election.
“It’s a little weird doing this in a pandemic,” Cannon said.
Fair Districts VA has been trying to raise awareness through Op-Eds and videos, as well as the #NOon1 campaign on social media. Many Virginia politicians have tweeted in support of #NOon1, and have been retweeted by Fair Districts’ twitter account.
They may disagree on whether Amendment 1 is right for Virginia, but both Cannon and Levine agree on one thing– raising awareness of this ballot question, and what it means for Virginia, is crucial.
“Our biggest opponent is not people saying ‘vote no’ — it’s the people who say ‘I don’t know,” Cannon said.
Top Image by Drf5n, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia