Virginia’s electoral districts for the House of Delegates following the 2019 elections, courtesy of VPAP.org. Democrats control 55 of Virginia’s House of Delegates seats to Republicans 45.
FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP)-The term gerrymander traces its way all the way back to the Governor of Massachusetts in 1812, Elbridge Gerry, who drew an election precinct whose shape was similar to a salamander and was thus dubbed the ‘gerry-mander.’
In Virginia, the gerrymander goes all the way back to the first congressional elections, when then-Gov. Patrick Henry drew up a district to try to keep James Madison, father of the Constitution that Henry opposed, out of the House of Representatives.
Madison, though, campaigned vigorously despite a chronic case of hemorrhoids, and beat James Monroe in a race featuring two future presidents.
Now, Virginia voters are deciding whether to alter their state constitution to support redistricting reform that would take the once-every-10-year task of drawing maps out of legislators’ hands, at least to an extent, and give it to a bipartisan panel.
The debate over the referendum comes one year after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows even extreme partisan gerrymandering. But even though the issue has become a hot-button one nationally, the Virginia referendum is the only redistricting question on the ballot in the U.S. this year, said reform advocate Brian Cannon.
Efforts to get the question in front of voters in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oregon and Nevada failed, in part because the coronavirus epidemic stymied the ability to collect petition signatures, said Cannon, who for several years has directed the OneVirginia2021 redistricting reform advocacy group.
In Virginia, the proposal to amend the state constitution to create a bipartisan redistricting panel received support from both parties last year, at a time when Republicans controlled the state legislature but Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion.
Under state law, though, a proposal to amend the Constitution must pass the General Assembly for two consecutive years before going to the voters. After Democrats won control of the legislature in last year’s elections, a majority of Democrats reversed their support for the referendum. It only narrowly passed the House of Representatives.
Some Democratic leaders in Virginia are now leading a campaign to defeat the referendum.
Republican Del. Jason Miyares of Virginia Beach said the change of heart is purely an effort by Democrats to press their political advantage.
“One side wants to exercise raw political power,” Miyares said of Democrats. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to ask politicians to give up political power.”
Marcus Simon, a Democrat who has been working to defeat the referendum, acknowledged the bad optics for Democrats, including himself: He switched from supporting the referendum in 2019 to opposing it in 2020 after Democrats gained power. But he said many Democrats voted for it last year knowing they could examine the legislation more closely in the 2020 session. He said the legislation does not stand up to scrutiny, and doesn’t do enough to take politics out of the process.
The proposed change would turn over the task of drawing state and congressional maps, beginning with the 2021 redistricting, to a 16-member panel of eight legislators and eight citizens, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The eight citizens would be chosen by judges from a list prepared by legislators.
The maps developed by the panel would then be sent to the General Assembly for an up-or-down vote with no opportunity to amend them. If the maps were rejected, the Supreme Court of Virginia would draw them.
Locally, both of the Eastern Shore’s state elected officials have openly supported the passage of ‘Ballot Question 1.’ Democratic Senator Lynwood Lewis, who has called for redistricting reform for years, and Republican Delegate Rob Bloxom have come together to ask the Eastern Shore to vote yes to approve the referendum.