Commentary: Non-Partisan Redistricting Needed

Last week I was down in Richmond for a special session on redistricting called by Governor Northam to finally fix the map that the Republican-controlled General Assembly drew in 2011 crafted to disadvantage Democrats by concentrating large numbers of African-American voters into fewer districts thus diluting their strength in the surrounding, mostly Republican drawn, districts. Back in June, the court opined that the current map in 11 specific districts in the Tidewater and Richmond regions was unconstitutional and directed the General Assembly to redraw the districts by the end of October. Judge Barbara Milano Kennan of the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia wrote of the 11 delegate districts “Overwhelming evidence in this case shows that, contrary to . . . constitutional mandate, the state has sorted voters into districts based on the color of their skin.” The Republicans appealed the court decision asking for a stay of the order and all map drawing progress was halted, until last week’s session. The session lasted one day and we could not come to an agreement but the clock is ticking. We are at an impasse. With no agreement in sight, in all likelihood it will be up to the court to draw a new map that could give the Democrats the majority in next year’s elections.

This impasse is not for lack of trying to come up with a bipartisan map. Prior to the convening of the special session, Democratic leader Toscano sent letters to our Republican colleagues in July, and again in August, in the hopes of creating a bipartisan plan which has been met with little to no response. During last week’s special session, the Democratic caucus introduced a map that complied with all constitutional requirements. The potential map would affect 29 total districts. (It will not affect the 44th District.) Instead of working jointly on a potential new map, Republicans spent most of the day criticizing the Democratic map in the Privileges and Election Committee without introducing any map of their own. Their strategy seems to depend on delaying the redrawing in the hopes of the court's decision being reversed by the Supreme Court. However, just after the special session adjourned last Thursday, the district court denied the House Republicans’ request for a stay of the June 26 court order, meaning a new map will have to be drawn in the near future. House Republicans also voted against a floor amendment requiring the house to meet again on Sept. 12 to address the issue and against a motion in committee to hold public hearings on Sept. 8 followed by another meeting on the 12th.

Then there is 2021. That will be the next year when we have elections in newly drawn state legislative districts, beyond what may happen next year, because every 10 years state legislatures redraw district lines based on data collected from the Federal census. The Constitution of Virginia gives the General Assembly great flexibility to define the boundaries for election districts, requiring only that “Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory and shall be so constituted as to give, as nearly as practicable, representation in proportion to the population of the district.”

This rebalancing happens every 10 years to ensure communities have proper representation in accordance with population changes. The best practice should always be to update these districts without political bias, keeping communities of interest together, and in a way that ensures voters receive fair and just representation.

Gerrymandering is not a Republican or Democratic idea. The term dubiously honors Elbridge Gerry, who after the 1810 census arranged for an election district boundary in Massachusetts with an unusual shape that supposedly resembled a salamander, and hence the name, “gerrymander.” Both parties have used the practice for their own advantage. This practice needs to stop. This is why the Democrats have introduced numerous proposals to take the power away from legislators and end gerrymandering. Since 2002, Democrats have introduced 87 bills to fight partisan gerrymandering while Republicans have only introduced three. I cosponsored legislation in 2016 and 2017 which would amend the Constitution to create nonpartisan redistricting commissions. All of these bills were defeated in the House. I remain steadfastly committed to creating non-partisan redistricting in Virginia. We saw what can happen last year when our two parties worked together for the betterment of Virginia with the expansion of Medicaid. We need that same attitude now to ensure a fair electoral process.