While all eyes are going to be on the presidential and congressional races in Virginia, there’s another race that is just important. On the back of Virginia’s ballots, there’s Constitutional Amendment 1, which aims to fix the problem of gerrymandering in the Commonwealth. While Virginia’s two statewide races aren’t expected to be competitive, this redistricting reform amendment has that potential.
Virginia must redraw its congressional and state legislative districts every decade to coincide with the census. Currently, the General Assembly gets to draw the maps. This has led to gerrymandering; the process of drawing districts to unfairly favor a political party.
What is Amendment 1?
Constitutional Amendment 1 attempts to fix this by creating a redistricting commission to draw the new maps for Virginia instead of the legislature. The commission would be made up of eight citizens and eight legislators from the House of Delegates and State Senate. The citizens on the commission would be selected by retired circuit court judges. These judges would be selected from lists provided by both parties. After this commission draws the new maps, six of the citizens and six of the legislators would have to approve them to move out of the commission.
Additionally, maps for the House of Delegates need to be approved by three out of the four House members. State Senate maps need to be approved by three out of the four Senate members. The legislature would then have to vote up or down the new maps. If the commission fails to submit a plan for new districts or the General Assembly fails to adopt a new plan, the Supreme Court of Virginia will decide the new districts. This process would be open to the public and any records or documents from the commission would become public information.
The process to adopt this amendment has been ongoing for the last year. The constitutional amendment was introduced in the 2019 legislative session and passed by a wide margin in both houses. After a constitutional amendment passes the legislature, it must be held over to the next elected legislature and pass again to be put on the ballot.
The amendment was again put to a vote in the 2020 session. However, it faced tougher opposition in the newly Democratic-controlled legislature. The amendment had the backing of Democrat leadership in the Senate, which led it to pass the Senate 38-2. Unlike Majority Leader Saslaw, Speaker Filler-Corn opposed the amendment on the second vote despite supporting it in 2019. While most of the House Democrats opposed it on the second vote, enough supported it to pass narrowly 54-46.
This brings us to where we are today. With less than a month left to the election, both sides are ramping up their efforts to convince Virginians to vote Amendment 1 up or down.
The Argument for “Yes”
The argument for passing Amendment 1 is that it will prevent gerrymandering. Since the redistricting committee would be chaired by a citizen and half of its members are citizens, there is less of an incentive to draw districts for political gain because the people who will be represented in these districts have a seat at the table.
The commission would also be transparent. Since the process is open to the public, legislators wouldn’t have the ability to cut backroom deals on redistricting. This means entrenched incumbents wouldn’t be able to unfairly create safer districts for themselves.
Lastly, a supermajority of the commission would have to approve of the new districts before they are sent to the legislature. This means that there must be a clear consensus on the maps before they are presented to the General Assembly. If only a simple majority was required to approve the maps, all the legislators would need to do is sway one of the citizen members to vote with them to overrule a majority of the citizen commission members. Requiring a supermajority ensures the citizen members are heard.
The Argument for “No”
The argument against passing the amendment is that creating a commission doesn’t actually end gerrymandering. The commission would operate under a set of criteria that is meant to get rid of gerrymandering. However, that criteria can be changed by future General Assemblies. So should the General Assembly want to gerrymander, all they would have to do is change the criteria.
The supermajority would also give the minority party veto power over the process. This is because only several of their legislator members would have to vote against the commission maps to block them. The minority party could thus slow down the process for political gain.
Finally, should the Virginia redistricting commission fail to produce new maps, or the legislature fail to approve them, the redistricting process would be done by the Virginia Supreme Court, which has no institutional expertise on redistricting. Democrats have also argued that since the majority of the members of the Supreme Court were appointed by Republicans, the maps produced by them would favor the Republican Party.
Who Supports It?
There isn’t much in the way of polling on this ballot measure. A poll by Mason-Dixon showed that 72% of Virginians supported the amendment. But this poll was conducted back in December 2019, which is almost a year from when the amendment will be voted on. Since then, the Virginia Democrats have endorsed voting no on the amendment. Many of their local committees recommending to vote “No” on their sample ballots.
On the other side of the aisle, Virginia Republicans have endorsed voting “Yes” on Amendment 1. Many of their local committees recommending voting “Yes” on their sample ballots.
Will it Pass?
If Virginia Democrats want to be successful at defeating this amendment, they need to turn it into a partisan issue. Virginia is a reliably blue state for the time being, so if they can convince their voters to vote no, they have a decent shot at defeating it. In a cycle with an incredibly divisive presidential election, this isn’t an insurmountable task.
On the other hand, if Republicans want this amendment to pass, they need to convince a portion of Democrats to vote against their party’s wishes. Normally, this would be a daunting task. However, Virginia Democrats have been campaigning on redistricting reform for several cycles. Many of their voters will be open to supporting it. Independent groups like OneVirginia2021 have been pushing for this Amendment for the last several years, meaning Republicans will have a head start when it comes to campaigning for its passage. Several Republican legislators have also started PACs to support Amendment 1. Sen. Emmett Hanger has created Virginians for a Better Tomorrow to support the amendment – and to test the waters for a Gubernatorial run.
Progressive groups have also stepped in to oppose the amendment. Fair Districts is a group created to oppose redistricting reform in Virginia. It has support from other more high-profile progressive organizations such as New Majority Virginia and Progress Virginia.
As Election Day draws closer, expect more PACs to spend money on trying to swing voters on redistricting reform. The legislative maps will affect the General Assembly for the next decade, so both sides are heavily invested in the outcome.
In a bitterly partisan election cycle that will most likely have sky-high turnout, the outcome of Constitutional Amendment 1 is hard to predict. What we do know is that its passage or failure will have long-lasting implications for the Commonwealth. It’s important that Virginia voters head to the polls with as much information about the amendment as possible.