Ballot amendment to decide how Virginia draws its districts in 2021

Illustration by Gabrielle Wood

Anya Sczerzenie, Staff Writer

One question on Virginia voters’ ballots this November will help decide the process for drawing Virginia’s electoral districts that will stand for the next 10 years.

Amendment 1 is a proposed change to the Virginia state constitution that would take the power to draw districts away from the General Assembly as a whole and give it to an independent, bipartisan commission of 16 people –– eight legislators and eight citizens –– evenly drawn from both major parties. 

The proposed commission is a hybrid of sorts,” VCU political science professor Alex Keena said.

Keena said one can predict how the amendment could affect Virginians by looking at states with similar public commissions, such as New Jersey, Hawaii, California and Arizona.

“In almost all cases, the commissions end up approving plans that most everybody is satisfied with,” Keena said. 

Voting “yes” on ballot question 1 is a vote for this amendment to pass, while “no” is a vote to leave redistricting powers solely with the General Assembly. Virginia’s electoral districts are based on the U.S. Census Bureau and drawn every 10 years after the nationwide survey is conducted. Once Virginia’s 2021 electoral districts are set, they will not be drawn again until 2031.

Supporters of the amendment say it is needed reform that will help the redistricting process become more bipartisan and fair, and combat gerrymandering. Opponents say the measure is unnecessary and will concentrate the power in the hands of very few people, leading to more gerrymandering. 

Keena said that if Amendment 1 does not pass, whatever political party in control of Virginia’s legislature will be able to draw the lines to its advantage. 

“Probably what happens is the Democrats appoint an advisory commission to draw the lines to show they are committed to a fair process,” Keena said, “ but ultimately they will have the power to override any such commission because the constitution would still grant the General Assembly redistricting authority.”

Many Virginians, both lawmakers and citizens, oppose Amendment 1 in favor of an alternative anti-gerrymandering legislation passed by Democrats in April. House Bill 1225, sponsored by Marcia S. Price, D-Newport News, was signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam during the spring legislative session. 

HB 1225 provides criteria for drawing political districts: 

  • They must be contiguous 
  • Can’t dilute minority populations or prison populations
  • Must not give undue power to one political party over another 

Opponents of Amendment 1 say that the amendment is unnecessary because HB 1225 has already made it illegal to gerrymander. 

Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, strongly opposes the bill. He says the language of the bill is “a mess” and that it will do nothing to end gerrymandering.

“The party leaders pick every single person on that commission,” Levine said. “It’s not independent. It’s a commission of the party leaders.”

The amendment would also allow the Virginia Supreme Court to determine district lines if the commission is unable to reach an agreement. The Virginia state legislature currently has a Democratic trifecta –– holding the state Senate, House of Delegates and governor’s mansion –– but the state’s supreme court justices are appointed to 12-year terms by a majority vote in the General Assembly. 

Levine calls this language the amendment’s “poison pill.”

“At the end of the day, the Supreme Court will decide,” Levine said. “The Supreme Court can’t police itself.”

The group Fair Maps VA, an offshoot of the OneVirginia2021 foundation, is pro-Amendment 1. The foundation supports nonpartisan redistricting reform in the commonwealth. Brian Cannon, Fair Maps VA’s executive director, believes a bipartisan commission is needed because both parties gerrymander to their advantage.

“Partisan and racial gerrymandering are inextricably linked. It’s a national phenomenon, but Richmond is kind of a key part of the racial gerrymandering that would dilute Black voices.” — Brian Cannon, executive director of Fair Maps VA

When Virginia’s legislative districts were drawn after the 2010 census, they were found to be “unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered” under the Voting Rights Act. This led to a years-long court process, which resulted in the districts being completely redrawn. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell established an independent commission in 2011 to help redraw the districts, but the legislature was not bound by this commission’s recommendations.

Cannon said the greatest challenge for his campaign to promote Amendment 1 is not the people who are voting “no,” but those who are unaware that Amendment 1 exists.

“Our biggest opponent is not people saying ‘vote no,’ it’s the people who say ‘I don’t know,” Cannon said.

2 Comments

  1. As someone who has been working for a redistricting reform amendment for the past four years, this article makes me proud to have three degrees from VCU/MCV. It’s accurate and balanced. One addition–Amendment One is supported by the majority of good government advocacy groups such as ACLU-VA, League of Women Voters, Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Common Cause, Chamber of Commerce, and Brennan Center for Justice. At VCU I learned to use evidence-based practice, which means I’ve voted for Amendment One.

  2. I advise everyone to read Amendment 1 – not the text on the ballot, but the amendment itself – carefully. I find it has lots of procedural loopholes that, to my mind, make it inferior to HB 1255. That just 2 votes are need to override the votes of the other 6 and send the decision from the commission to the Virginia Supreme Court (which currently is almost entirely Republican) is not a good process. And – here’s the real sticking point for me – HB 1255 forbids the legislature to draw districts based on partisan factors, but Amendment 1 *does not* apply the same restriction to the court. I see no reason to expect Amendment 1 to yield fairer districts than HB 1255. Neither, I might add, does the NAACP, which is strongly against the amendment.

    But please don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself. I did, and that’s why I voted no.

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