Of all the matters before the Virginia General Assembly this year, one rises above all of them in the mind of former Virginia Governor and U.S. Senator George Allen: redistricting reform.
“This issue, right now, this year … is by far the most important issue before the legislature,” Allen told a crowd gathered for a town hall on the issue at the Hollins Branch Library in Roanoke County on Saturday.
Allen came on behalf of the nonprofit OneVirginia2021, which advocates for an amendment to Virginia’s Constitution to create a bipartisan process for re-drawing the state’s Senate, House of Delegates and House of Representatives districts. Roanoke was one stop among several Allen made on behalf of such an amendment.
Redistricting is “a nerdy little process issue that has huge ramifications,” OneVirginia2021 Executive Director Brian Cannon told the crowd. He also showed several examples where both Democrats and Republicans re-drew districts as an “incumbent protection scheme” to retain or expand power.
Allen explained that for redistricting reform to be in place for use in 2021, the General Assembly must pass a proposed amendment in this session, and then pass it again next year — after the election this November — before it can go to voters for ratification.
If it’s not done this year, the existing process will be used to create districts for use through 2030.
Before he was governor and senator, Allen was himself redistricted out of a congressional seat in 1991.
“I’ve always been for redistricting reform, because I don’t think the politicians ought to be doing this kind of stuff,” he said. But until recently he didn’t care for OneVirginia2021’s proposal because it didn’t give the legislature a say. Too many decisions are made in government by unelected bureaucrats and judges, Allen said.
A redistricting plan that passed the Senate unanimously this session remedied Allen’s concern. That plan involves creating a bipartisan commission with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats joined by citizen appointees. They would devise a map that must pass an up-or-down vote by the General Assembly. A plan with some variations comes up for a vote in the House of Delegates this week.
So Allen, a Republican, joined the cause to argue for bipartisan redistricting that prevents one party from gerrymandering districts to keep itself in power or force the other party out of power.
He favors districts that reflect communities with like interests, not “creative cartography” that does things like divide a single small town among two or three senate districts. He also favors districts following precinct boundaries and, when possible, city and county lines.
The almost entirely Republican crowd seemed supportive, but Allen made the case for bipartisan cooperation and pointed to his own term as governor for examples. He worked with the Democrat-controlled legislature to abolish parole and create Virginia’s educational accountability system. Those initiatives are enduring because both parties worked together on them, he said.
The only objection came from a man who took issue with Allen’s contention that redistricting reform is the most important issue before the General Assembly this year.
“You don’t even mention baby murder?” he shouted, referring to the Democrats’ late-term abortion bill that caused controversy last week before being killed. “Redistricting is the most important issue? Have you lost your mind?” he continued before being asked to leave.
Allen highlighted the timing this year in another way. It’s the 400th anniversary of the General Assembly, the longest continually meeting legislature in the western hemisphere, he noted.
“What we’re doing is not saying how great the old days were,” he said, “We’re saying we’re going to make this a more perfect, fair commonwealth where we the people are in control rather than the politicians.”