A constitutional amendment on the ballot for Virginia voters aims to change not only how political district lines are drawn, but who draws them to address the concern of gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is defined as the act of manipulating district lines to favor one party over another in an election.
The amendment poses a solution: Instead of allowing the state legislature to continue redrawing district lines, it aims to transfer this power to a commission of state legislators and citizens. A “yes” vote supports this transfer of power. (See amendment text on page 9)
Brian Cannon directs Fair Maps VA, a campaign formed by the nonpartisan reform coalition OneVirginia2021 to pass the amendment. He said it would end partisan gerrymandering, establish protections for racial and ethnic minority communities, make the process more transparent, and allow citizens in the room for the first time ever during the redistricting process.
The commission would consist of eight legislators and eight citizens evenly balanced by party, and the citizens would have an equal say with the legislators.
“The current redistricting process is broken in Virginia,” said Cannon. “Politicians go into a smoky backroom and draw maps that minimize our voting power. Amendment one is a chance to change that.”
Gerrymandering can put communities at a disadvantage, making it impossible for them to elect leaders that represent their interests. Racial gerrymandering is already illegal in the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s illegal to crack minority communities, and it’s illegal to pack minority communities,” Cannon said. “This amendment would add those same two guardrails into the state constitution.”
He said cracking and packing are two gerrymandering tools used to suppress minority voting power. Cracking refers to taking a “compact and cohesive” community and dividing its residents to minimize their voting power. One place where this occurred in the past was the Jackson Ward neighborhood in Richmond.
“They would carve it up and put little bits of the Black community in different parts of the district so that as a whole, while they might have had influence over one or two districts themselves, they were spread out over three to six districts, and they had no power whatsoever,” he said.
The Voting Rights Act in 1965 made cracking communities illegal. In the 1980s and 90s, politicians started to “pack” communities. Where there might have naturally been 10 districts likely to elect a Black candidate, politicians would reduce that number to five.
“[With packing], plenty of Black candidates get elected, but not as many as there should be,” Cannon said.
Cannon said that in Virginia, packing is the most common type of racial gerrymandering.
The amendment proposed by OneVirginia2021 and supported by FairMapsVA is intended to end both partisan and racial gerrymandering.
In state senate District 17, where Louisa is located, Cannon said a good example of gerrymandering might be Lake Anna, which he said is carved up between that district and the 22nd district.
“I’m sure there are state and federal regulations that rub right up against all sorts of things on their property and managing a lake,” Cannon said. “And being carved up like that probably dilutes their influence as a community in any one Senate district.”
Currently the Democratic Party holds the majority in the Virginia General Assembly, which means district lines could be redrawn next year to favor Democratic candidates. Conversely, if the Republican Party held the majority, the lines could be redrawn to favor their candidates.
Robin Horne, Louisa Republican Party chair, said she supports the amendment and its mission to restore voting power to the citizens.
“We shouldn’t allow politicians to pick their voters to safeguard their seats,” she said. “This includes both political parties.”
Jennifer Wainright, Louisa Democratic Committee chair, said she disagrees.
“While we absolutely need a new process, this amendment is not the right solution,” she said. “Democrats control the General Assembly and should do the right thing for Virginians.”
Some Democrats fear the Republicans on the commission will use their numbers to keep a fair redistricting plan from passing, or force the final decision on a plan to be made by the state Supreme Court, which has leaned conservative in recent years. Other Democrats worry the amendment is weak when it comes to preventing racial gerrymandering.
If the amendment is passed, Cannon is hopeful it will create more fair and competitive elections.
“You’ll see districts that actually start to reflect our communities rather than some politician’s reelection strategy,” he said.