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Analysis

Virginia Democrats Must Follow Through on Redistricting Reform Following Election Victory

After gaining control of state government despite gerrymandering, newly empowered Democrats should continue pushing efforts to end it.

November 6, 2019
Virginia statehouse
Drew Angerer/Getty

Tues­day night’s elec­tions were a water­shed for Demo­crats in Virginia. By the end of the night, not only had Demo­crats won control of both houses of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time in a gener­a­tion, they had done so without losing a single seat picked up in the state’s wave elec­tion of 2017.

It’s a huge turn­about from 2013, when Repub­lic­ans won a super­ma­jor­ity in the House of Deleg­ates and held an 8 to 3 advant­age in the state’s congres­sional deleg­a­tion. Both of those outsized major­it­ies, in an other­wise quint­es­sen­tial battle­ground state, were due in large part to racially gerry­mandered maps that were later struck down by federal courts.

And with Demo­crats in control of the governor’s mansion as well, there has already been early buzz about how they will use their new trifecta to do things like pass big voting reforms such as auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion. But para­dox­ic­ally, the elec­tion has also created a big poten­tial oppor­tun­ity for Demo­crats to be unprin­cipled on redis­trict­ing reform.

Earlier this year, the Virginia legis­lature almost unan­im­ously passed a consti­tu­tional amend­ment to create a 16-member advis­ory commis­sion to draw legis­lat­ive and congres­sional maps. But the amend­ment still needs to be passed a second time by the incom­ing legis­lature before it goes before voters in Novem­ber 2020 for approval. The ques­tion now is whether Demo­crats, having the unex­pec­ted chance to draw maps in 2021 without GOP involve­ment, will remain as commit­ted to reform as they were when govern­ment control was divided.

There are good reas­ons why they should be. Most import­antly, the amend­ment would create protec­tions for communit­ies of color and require that maps be approved by the commis­sion with super­ma­jor­ity bipar­tisan support. That would be a big win for voters in a state where this decade, African-Amer­ican voters were cynic­ally packed into oddly shaped districts in order to engin­eer polit­ical advant­ages for white Repub­lic­ans. Demo­crats, like­wise, could face future tempta­tion to use minor­ity voters either to gerry­mander an outsized advant­age or to give incum­bents of their party super-safe seats.

Indeed, this decade’s racial gerry­manders were so effect­ive that it took an unpre­ced­en­ted wave elec­tion in 2017 to make a mean­ing­ful dent in Repub­lic­ans’ polit­ical advant­age, and it has taken the better part of the decade — and several trips to the U.S. Supreme Court — to secure new fairer maps.

The proposed consti­tu­tional amend­ment, like­wise, would not cut the legis­lature out of the process. Maps passed by the advis­ory commis­sion would still need to be passed by both houses of the Virginia legis­lature to go into effect. No amend­ments would be permit­ted, but if either house rejects a map, the commis­sion would get a second chance to craft a map for the legis­lature’s consid­er­a­tion. If that map also fails, map-draw­ing respons­ib­il­ity would fall to the Virginia Supreme Court, with likely assist­ance from a court-appoin­ted “special master.”

Redis­trict­ing reform is also hugely popu­lar with Virginia voters, with nearly three in four saying that redis­trict­ing should be made inde­pend­ent from back­room party polit­ics. And though Virginia has been trend­ing Demo­cratic in recent years, the state remains more or less evenly divided between the parties, mean­ing that the advant­age currently enjoyed by Demo­crats may be more tempor­ary than it may seem the morn­ing after sweep­ing elect­oral wins.

But, having been the victims of gerry­man­der­ing this decade, Demo­crats now face the prover­bial angel on one shoulder and devil on the other. Pres­id­ent Obama and former Attor­ney General Eric Holder have made ending gerry­man­der­ing a prior­ity. They and Virginia voters should put pres­sure on Demo­crats to do what’s right, not what’s polit­ic­ally expedi­ent in the short-term.