The most consequential vote that Virginians cast this November may not be for president.
Whoever we elect as president will see his term expire Jan. 20, 2025.
However, the results of the constitutional amendment on whether to set up a bipartisan commission to draw district lines will govern the state for the whole decade — and beyond.
It also will be a fascinating test of just how blue Virginia has become, and whether even Democratic voters want to give carte blanche to the Democratic majority that now controls the General Assembly.
Let’s explain what’s at stake: We could go way back to 1812, when the Democratic-Republican governor of Massachusetts — Eldridge Gerry— earned his place in our political lexicon by signing a restricting bill that carved out a misshapen state Senate district that the opposition Federalists said looked like a salamander. Hence, the gerrymander, a favorite practice of partisans through the ages to limit the number of legislators from whichever side wound up on the losing end of the last election. Or, as some like to put it, legislators picking their voters rather than the other way around.
When Democrats controlled the Virginia General Assembly, they delighted in the gerrymander — and Republicans routinely called for a non-partisan commission to draw the lines instead. When Republicans won control of the General Assembly, they mysteriously lost their enthusiasm for that commission, and Democrats suddenly found a new religion. In 2019, with Republicans holding on to just a bare majority — and Democrats not quite convinced they’d win that year’s elections — the two parties reached a rare compromise. They passed a constitutional amendment to create a commission to draw district lines. It wasn’t a non-partisan commission of non-political figures but rather a bipartisan commission with representatives from both parties. Even so, it represented a major step away from partisan gerrymandering. Then a funny thing happened. Democrats won the 2019 legislative elections and many of them lost their interest in the amendment. Under Virginia’s rules, a proposed constitutional amendment has to pass the General Assembly twice — with an election in between. Democrats this year tried to bottle up the amendment in committee and nearly succeeded. Only a few rogue Democrats who joined with Republicans — their enthusiasm for a commission born again now that they’re in the minority — managed to keep the amendment alive and put it on the ballot for voters this fall.
Those Democratic objections were two-fold.
First, they fretted that the amendment does not spell out sufficient protections for minority voters — there’s no requirement that minorities be represented on the commission, or that the commission prevent the dilution of the Black vote in the way that lines are drawn.
Second, they object to the provision that if the commission can’t agree on new lines, then the Virginia Supreme Court is assigned the task. The amendment calls for eight legislators (four from each party) and eight citizen members picked by retired judges — and requires that at least six legislators and six citizens support the plan. Put another way, Democrats worry that three of the four Republicans could balk at the plan — and punt the whole process to the Supreme Court, a court that currently consists of justices elected by the Republican-controlled legislatures of the past — a court that includes one former Republican legislator and the sister of a current Republican legislators.
The counter-arguments go like this:
Democrats can fix the minority representation problem simply by making sure they put Black legislators on the commission — and the amendment points out that the commission still has to follow the federal Voting Rights Act.
The court provision is a more curious one. Suppose Republicans did jam up the works and throw redistricting to the court? Don’t expect to find the justices huddled over a conference room table with a highway map and a box of Magic Markers. In the past, when courts have had to draw district lines, the judges don’t do that themselves. Instead, they’ve appointed a “special master” — usually an academic who specializes in political mapmaking. Last year, when a panel of three federal judges found itself in charge of re-drawing district lines for certain House of Delegates districts between Richmond and Norfolk, the judges appointed Bernard Grofman, a political science professor from the University of California-Irving and former director of that school’s Center for the Study of Democracy.
Politics is full of ironies and here’s one: If Republicans did intentionally block the commission’s work, they’d be embracing the ivory tower and trusting that a college professor would draw more GOP-friendly lines than the commission would.
At their virtual convention this year, Virginia Democrats officially urged voters to reject the amendment. That would give Democrats sole power to draw district lines next year.
For Republican voters, the choice seems clear: They should hope the amendment passes — otherwise they’re completely at the not-so-tender mercy of Democratic map-makers.
Democratic voters face a more interesting choice: How much do they trust their own party not to gerrymander? Or is a little gerrymandering OK as long as their party is doing it? For decades Democrats protested gerrymandering and professed support for a commission. Now that they have a chance, will they really support what they said they supported? Should the perfect be the enemy of the good? Is an imperfect commission better than none at all? Democrats in the General Assembly could have strengthened their argument against this amendment by setting in motion a different amendment to show how they think the process should work. Notably, they did not, so it’s fair to ask if their objections are legitimate or whether they simply want to do to Republicans what they felt Republicans did to them.
For voters who don’t identify with either party, this is a choice between the devil they know and the devil they don’t know. The devil they know is political temptation and districts that don’t make any sense — which is why voters in Craig County are represented by a state senator in Lynchburg when there are at least four senators who live closer to them. The devil they don’t know may not turn out to be a devil at all, just a college professor with a computer who might want to prevent that.