Arlington, VA

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.

In his column last week, Mark Kelly discussed the recent unfortunate Supreme Court decision (5-4) concluding that federal courts could not provide relief from partisan gerrymandering.

In her persuasive dissent in that case, Justice Kagan concluded:

“In the face of grievous harm to democratic governance and flagrant infringements on individuals’ rights — in the face of escalating partisan manipulation whose compatibility with this nation’s values and law no one defends — the majority declines to provide any remedy.”

Despite this Supreme Court decision, Virginia is on its way to less partisan redistricting

Like many other states, Virginia currently has a partisan redistricting system.

For at least twenty years–up until early this year, 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 do it.

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 Senator “Dominion 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.

Partisan redistricting has served us poorly. The reasons were explained convincingly by a group of 20 business leaders from Virginia, Maryland and DC in this January 2019 statement:

“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….”

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 legislative houses in the 2019 general election, finally led the Virginia Republican House leadership to support a form of non-partisan redistricting.

With strong bi-partisan support, Virginia enacted a 2019 law that will lead to a less partisan redistricting system.

Key features of the proposed new Virginia redistricting system

An overview of the proposed new Virginia redistricting system is here. The new system establishes an advisory redistricting commission to draw the district lines. The new system will be less partisan but will still contain some partisan elements. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the current system.

The most important things you need to know:

  • Virginia legislative leaders assumed that the new system could only be adopted by amending Virginia’s Constitution
  • Amending Virginia’s Constitution requires 3 steps: 1. pass a law in one legislative session, 2. pass the identical law in the next legislative session, and put that law to a referendum vote of the electorate, 3. voters approve the referendum

We accomplished the first step in the 2019 legislative session.

This is what should happen next :

  • Pass it again. The legislature must pass the Constitutional amendment again in 2020 without changing so much as a comma.
  • Pass enabling legislation.Though the text of the Constitutional amendment can’t be changed, enabling legislation should be passed in 2020 to: put logistical systems in place to implement the amendment; push for a wide, publicly accessible application process for those who would like to serve as commissioners; add in protections that keep communities together; add in language that specifically prohibits partisan gerrymandering.
  • Convince voters to adopt the ballot referendum in November 2020. Polling from the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University shows that 78% of Virginians supported taking redistricting out of the hands of the legislature.

Conclusion

In the 2020 legislative session, Virginia legislators from both political parties should collaborate to pass, and Governor Northam should sign, the same proposed Virginia Constitutional amendment that was passed and signed in the 2019 session. We should all urge them to follow this course, and to support the referendum on the 2020 general election ballot.

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.

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