”War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
— From George Orwell’s “1984.”
Maybe Orwell had the date wrong. Maybe what he really meant to write was “2020.” There are lots of reasons why 2020 might be considered Orwellian, but here’s one close to home. Some Virginia Democrats are urging a “no” vote against the proposed constitutional amendment dealing with redistricting that’s on this year ballot by invoking the argument “No Gerrymandering. Vote No on Amendment #1.” This is an Orwellian perversion of the facts. Amendment One may or may not be the best way to deal with the problem — that’s certainly a matter of opinion. But this is undeniable: Voting no on Amendment One doesn’t defeat gerrymandering, it preserves gerrymandering. The Democrats who are pushing this particular line should be ashamed of peddling such a misleading argument. A more honest argument for those against the amendment would be “Amendment One sets up a bad process —trust us to do better.”
Voters, though, may not be in a trusting mood when it comes to either party, so Democrats have resorted to describing the amendment exactly the opposite of what it actually is. If this were a football game, that would merit an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty —or perhaps even an ejection. Instead this is politics, so apparently anything goes.
Here is what Amendment One would actually do —and not do.
First, let’s deal with the present. Under the present rules, the majority party in the General Assembly controls redistricting — the mandated re-drawing of legislative lines following the census. Right now, that’s the Democrats. Democrats have a legitimate argument that the proposed amendment is not the most beautiful piece of legislation ever written — we’ll get to that — but here’s what they’re not telling voters. If Amendment One is defeated, then they and they alone will control next year’s redistricting. They can promise all they want to set up some “fair” and even “non-partisan” process” but we all know about promises and principles. Just look how quickly Republicans in the U.S. Senate forgot all about their professed belief that they shouldn’t confirm a Supreme Court justice in an election year. When power is within a party’s grasp, every instinct tells a political party to seize it. This is exactly what Democrats are doing here — and will surely do next year if the amendment isn’t passed. They will gleefully draw legislative lines the way they see fit, with no restraint other than what various court decisions have imposed over the years.
This is why Republicans — who, when they were in power, opposed redistricting reform — now have gotten religion and are actively campaigning for Amendment One. They don’t want to see Democrats have unbridled power to redraw the lines. If you think Democrats should have that power — to the victor go the spoils, as the saying goes —then by all means you should vote against Amendment One. If you are more skeptical, then let’s take a closer look at what the amendment would actually do.
The amendment would give the responsibility of drawing legislative lines to a 16-member commission— four Democratic legislators, four Republican legislators and eight “citizens.” We put “citizens” in quotes because no one should be under any illusion that these will be ordinary people chosen for their wisdom and objectivity. They will almost certainly be what might be called “political insiders,” with the only rule being they can’t be current legislators or employees of Congress or the General Assembly. But they could be, for instance, former legislators.
The amendment says that each party leader in each chamber of the General Assembly will submit a list of at least 16 names —and a selection committee of five judges will pick two from each list, thus resulting in four Democrats and four Republicans. That’s why it’s incorrect to refer to this proposed redistricting commission as “non-partisan” because it won’t be. More properly, it should be called “bipartisan.” Those pushing for redistricting reform had hoped to keep legislators out of the business altogether. Instead, what they got was an agreement by Democrats and Republicans that the two parties would draw the lines together. If that imperfection offends you, then the alternative is to let Democrats have complete control next year — with the possibility that when Republicans win back the legislature they might junk everything and draw their own lines.
The amendment requires a super-majority on the commission to approve new lines — at least six of the eight legislators and at least six of the eight “citizen” members must agree. Further, at least three of the four senators must agree on the state Senate lines and three of the four delegates must agree on the House lines. This is intended to ensure a bipartisan agreement. What happens if they can’t agree? What happens if one party simply refuses to agree? Then it would be up to the Virginia Supreme Court to draw new lines. Democrats have been skeptical of that point. The current court was appointed mostly by Republicans, so Democrats worry that Republicans might intentionally gum up the works hoping to get a more favorable set of maps from the court. This is possible but unlikely: Judges have had to draw legislative lines in the past but they don’t do it themselves. They appoint a “special master” — usually a college professor who specializes in such things. The irony is that if Republicans blocked the commission from a super-majority agreement, they’d really be tossing their fate to some academic in his or her ivory tower — or, as Republicans often prefer to call them, “the liberal elite.”
If all this feels ungainly to you, you’re right, it is. But the question for voters isn’t whether this is the best method possible, it’s whether this is better than allowing one party — for now, Democrats — to have unfettered power. If you’re against gerrymandering, this is a classic case of “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” There are better ways to do this, but they’re not on the ballot. It’s either this or nothing, with nothing being that Democrats have a free pass at gerrymandering. What shall it be?
You need not think this amendment is a thing of beauty. You need not like it at all. Depending on your political persuasion, you may even prefer that Democrats have all the power. But to say that a vote against this amendment is a vote against gerrymandering is flat-out wrong. It’s that “no” vote that’s actually the vote for gerrymandering.