In our democracy, we have the right to assume that those who are elected reflect the choice of the majority of voters and that the voices of voters reign. In Virginia, unfortunately, that has not always been the case.
The votes of African Americans, for example, have historically been suppressed and diluted, giving them less ability to elect candidates of their choice.
Even in this decade, voting district lines were drawn to favor one political party over the other both for seats in Congress and for the Virginia House of Delegates, packing voters of color into a smaller number of districts to suppress their voices.
This year, we sponsored an amendment to the Virginia Constitution to fix that. Our amendment would end partisan redistricting and make it unlikely that other attempts to manipulate districts would succeed. Further, it would provide flexibility that should curtail legal challenges and make it less likely that districts will be drawn by courts.
Since 2010, Virginia has had 11 statewide elections — for president, U.S. senator, governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Although several of those elections were close, Democrats won all 11. It would be natural, therefore, to assume that the congressional representatives and state legislators elected this decade would be mostly Democrats.
For most of the decade, however, eight of the 11 congressional representatives and about two-thirds of the state delegates have been Republicans. This was no accident.
District lines were drawn to favor Republicans, with Democrats drawn into the minority. Recently, however, in a victory for democracy, federal judges struck down both the congressional and House of Delegates maps as racially gerrymandered.
As to not repeat the process that brought us to this point, and so that we do not have a single political party in power drawing maps to undermine the will of the voters, our constitutional amendment would establish an independent redistricting commission to draw districts every 10 years.
If passed by the General Assembly again next year, as is necessary for constitutional amendments, and approved by the voters in November 2020, that commission would draw Virginia’s congressional and legislative districts in 2021.
Our plan was carefully crafted to address the egregious mistakes of our past. Knowing Virginia’s history of tempering the voices of African American voters by packing them into a smaller number of districts, we incorporated language relating to the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause and the federal Voting Rights Act, and even added a requirement to provide opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect the candidate of their choice where practicable.
We also strived to open the process to the public. Because we know a lack of transparency breeds distrust, we are confident that by shining light on the process we can make it only more fair and just.
The structure that our amendment proposes is simple but effective.
The independent redistricting commission would have eight citizen members and eight legislators, with four Republican lawmakers and four Democrats, to ensure political parity, picked by their respective parties. Retired judges would pick the citizens from lists submitted by legislative leaders.
To help ensure that all voices are heard, any plan submitted by the commission must have the support of six of the eight citizen members and six of the eight legislators.
This means a coalition of Republicans, Democrats, legislators and citizens would have to come together to agree on a plan, thereby increasing the likelihood of a fairer outcome.
Once agreed upon, the proposed congressional and combined legislative plans would go to the legislature for up-or-down votes in both the House of Delegates and the Senate.
If a plan were not adopted on the first try, it would go back to the commission for a second effort. If the second attempt were unsuccessful, the Virginia Supreme Court would draw the districts, not the majority party as has typically been done.
By working with both Republicans and Democrats to provide the checks and balances that make this constitutional amendment fair to all, we were able to achieve unanimous support in the Senate this year and an 85-to-13 vote in the House of Delegates.
This plan is not perfect, but it represents a bipartisan compromise that accomplishes the quest for redistricting reform. We look forward to the adoption of good redistricting plans for Virginia voters in 2021; our constituents, commonwealth and very democracy deserve as much.