Virginia lawmakers must act now on redistricting reform

Common Cause endorses SJR 306, a good bill that sets up a framework for a redistricting commission, and is fighting to add anti-gerrymandering language as we approach the 2020 census.

For too long, Virginia politicians have manipulated redistricting to choose their voters, and not the other way around.  We are now on the cusp of redistricting reform that would begin giving power to voters and move toward ending partisan gerrymandering in Virginia.  

Reformers know that the fight for redistricting change means playing the long game. In a state like Virginia, where constitutional changes must go through two votes of the legislature and a vote of the people, we have to be ready to win change step by step. As the old saying goes, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

And so it is that when SJR 274, proposing a robust independent commission with strong and clear mapping rules died in committee, we shifted our focus to SJR 306, a good bill setting up a framework for a redistricting commission that includes politicians and citizens. SJR 306 passed the Senate with unanimous support this week.  While we hope to strengthen this bill as we move forward, particularly with the inclusion of anti-gerrymandering language, SJR 306 as it stands gets us closer to meaningful redistricting reform than we have been in living memory.  It’s now up to the House of Delegates to do the right thing and pass meaningful redistricting reform for Virginia.  

To be clear, reforming the redistricting process is not about taking away power from one party and giving it to another.  Instead, redistricting reform is about putting the power to select elected representatives where it belongs: with the voters.  

Here’s why SJR 306 makes sense. It sets up a bipartisan redistricting commission with 16 members; eight appointed by the majority and minority leaders of both houses to represent their parties and eight citizen members selected by a panel of retired Virginia judges.  This commission will take public testimony in at least three public meetings prior to voting on any proposed redistricting plans. All records, testimony, documents, and data that the commission uses to draw voting districts will be open and available to the public.  

This is a drastic and crucial departure from the current redistricting process which is conducted behind closed doors by partisan politicians with little opportunity for public input.  Passing this reform is a huge step toward transparent and inclusive democracy as it should be in Virginia.  

Of course, this reform isn’t perfect. Advocates, including Common Cause, are asking that any redistricting reform bill include anti-gerrymandering language that prohibits drawing districts with the intent of favoring or disfavoring any political party, incumbent legislator or member of Congress, or individual.  Including this anti-gerrymandering language would be an important safeguard to protect the interests of Virginia voters and to ensure that voters are the ones choosing their elected representatives, not the other way around.  

Opponents of meaningful reform point to litigation in the aftermath of redistricting reform in states like Florida as an example of why anti-gerrymandering language should not appear in Virginia’s constitution. In fact, Florida is the perfect example of how this language protects voters.  After Florida voters passed  anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendments in 2011, the Florida legislature blatantly ignored the will of the voters and engaged in the same partisan gerrymandering backroom tactics that they had done before the initiative was passed. Voters sued and the Florida Supreme Court found that the maps violated the newly passed anti-gerrymandering provisions of the Florida Constitution and forced the legislature to redraw the maps.  

While litigation is certainly never the goal, it is an important tool to hold legislatures accountable to the constitutions under which they serve.  Without this important anti-gerrymandering provision, Florida’s legislature would have gotten away with manipulating the maps – that’s why we are fighting so hard to demand this language be included in SJR 306.  

Reforming the redistricting process in Virginia must happen now.  Even SJR 306 will need passage in two legislative sessions separated by an election and followed by a public referendum – and in order for this reform to be in place for the redistricting following the 2020 Census, it needs to happen now.  

Common Cause and our members are proud to stand alongside One Virginia 2021, New Virginia Majority and other Virginia partners in calling for the strengthening and passage of this important reform.