Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
Like many other states, Virginia has a partisan redistricting system. Partisan redistricting has served us poorly.
Entrenched incumbents from both major Virginia political parties have worked hard to retain the current system — placing greater value on keeping their own seats than on what is in the long-term best interests of all Virginia voters.
For at least 20 years, up until last month, Republican leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates fought non-partisan redistricting. They wanted to retain their control and saw partisan redistricting as the best way to keep power.
Locked out of power, many Democrats believed they would do better with non-partisan redistricting. But that did not stop some Democratic legislative leaders, like 28-year incumbent Democratic Sen. Dick Saslaw, from spearheading the disastrous 2011 legislative deal under which Virginia Senate Democratic leaders gave Virginia House Republican leaders free reign to draw partisan delegate lines while Virginia Senate Democratic leaders received free reign to draw partisan Senate lines. Litigation over the partisan House delegate lines continues right up to today.
Sweeping gains by Democrats in the 2017 Virginia House of Delegates elections, combined with the prospect that Republicans might lose control of one or both houses of the legislature in 2019, finally has led the Virginia Republican House leadership to support some form of non-partisan redistricting.
Why non-partisan redistricting is so important
On Jan. 28, a group of 20 business leaders from Virginia, Maryland and DC published a compelling statement explaining why it is so important for both Virginia and Maryland to adopt non-partisan redistricting:
“The endemic dysfunction in our government stems from incentives in politics that promote ideological purity over pragmatic problem solving and cooperation. … We believe anti-gerrymandering measures are the logical starting point for reform, and they are urgently needed in both Maryland and Virginia. A system in which politicians pick their voters, rather than the other way around, is inherently wrong and dysfunctional. Partisan gerrymandering is a protection racket for incumbent politicians….”
Now is a critical moment in the 2019 legislative session
Non-partisan redistricting can only be adopted via a constitutional amendment. To amend the Virginia Constitution, an identical amendment must be passed by both legislative houses and signed by the governor in two consecutive years. After passage in the second year, Virginia voters need to approve the amendment in a statewide vote.
Those two consecutive years must be 2019 and 2020 in order to have the new non-partisan system in place in time to be utilized when the 2020 U.S. census results must be used (in 2021) to draw new legislative lines for 2021-2031.
The clock is ticking on the 2019 legislative session.
Where the 2019 legislative session stands now
Competing non-partisan redistricting bills are under consideration in the legislature: “All the bills on the table show real movement toward reform, said Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021 [a redistricting reform advocacy group].”
On January 31, the Virginia Senate unanimously (40-0) passed SJ306, a bill defining the Senate’s preferred version of non-partisan redistricting.
One provision in HJ615, a Virginia House of Delegates bill sponsored by Del. Mark Cole (R-88th District), has drawn criticism from Democrats. That provision seeks to “preserve the political parity between the two political parties receiving the highest and next highest number of votes in the immediately preceding gubernatorial election.” Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group, correctly concludes that this provision “defeats the purpose of redistricting reform, regardless of what political party may benefit from the rule.”
Virginia legislative leaders from both parties need to agree in this legislative session on bipartisan legislation providing non-partisan redistricting reform. Please contact them and urge them to do so.
(Disclosure: I called on Governor Northam to resign.)
Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.