Virginians will vote on two constitutional amendments this November
By Zach England
Virginia voters could settle a political turf battle over who draws the new legislative district map after the 2020 Census.
The proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 3 ballot seeks approval for a bipartisan commission of legislators and citizens to redraw the voting districts in 2021 and every decade.
It’s the latest salvo in a long-running battle that’s gone to the U.S. Supreme Court. And it’s confusing because politicians change positions on the topic, depending on which party holds the majority of the state Legislature. For instance, the Democrats who now control the state House oppose the amendment because it will usurp some of their power in drawing the new district map. Ironically, when asked whether voters should vote yes or no on the amendment, the Virginia Democratic Party refused to comment.
Supporters say it addresses historically unfair gerrymandering, the practice of manipulating district boundaries to give one party an advantage, often based on racial demographics. Traditionally, the General Assembly, which consists of a 100-member House of Delegates and a 40-member Senate, draws the maps. The party in control tailors districts to preserve their power for the next 10 years.
In 2011, after the 2010 census, Virginia redrew legislative districts for the State’s Senate, House of Delegates, and U.S. House seats. Following the redistricting, voters in 12 state legislative districts sued two state agencies and four election officials setting off several appeals that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sent it back to the federal District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia.
The District Court ruled 2-1 in 2018 that 11 of the districts were sorted unconstitutionally by race. And while the state didn’t plan to appeal, the then Republican-controlled State House of Delegates, in fear of losing control of the House, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision 5-4.
After redrawing the districts, the Democrats took control of the General Assembly in the 2019 election. This amendment, on the Nov. 3 ballot, is supported by a non-partisan reform group called OneVirginia2021, that claims “in Virginia, politicians get to pick their own voters. It should be the other way around.”
Bill Bolling, former Virginia Republican lieutenant governor and one of the group’s leaders recently took to Facebook to garner support for the amendment.
“It will at least give us a chance to end political gerrymandering and have congressional and legislative districts that are designed with the voters best interest in mind,” he wrote.
Most Democrats in the State Senate are in favor of the bill, too.
“This amendment will ensure that all Virginia voters have a fair say in our democracy, no matter where they live or what communities they come from,”said Senator George Barker (D-Fairfax) in a statement.
The Democratic opposition to the bill is in the House, where they currently hold a majority of the seats. If the amendment is approved, the Democrats would have less of a say in redistricting next year than they would under current law.
Opponents worry the amendment could give too much power to the state’s judicial branch, which has final say if the commission doesn’t reach consensus on the map. Publicly, lawmakers call it problematic because the amendment does not specifically ban gerrymandering.
“We must be vigilant and adhere to an extraordinarily high standard when proceeding with permanently changing the Constitution,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said in a statement. “In my opinion, this Amendment fails to meet that standard.”
During this summer’s legislative session, the bill caused a divide among the Democratic party –with most Senate Democrats in support and most House Democrats opposed.
It was a convenient switch in opinion since 2019, when Republicans controlled the General Assembly before the election. They have not been hesitant to point out the hypocrisy in the Democrats’ faltering commitment to nonpartisan redistricting now that they have control of the legislature, the Washington Post reported.
At the end of this year’s session, only nine Democrats joined all 45 Republicans in the House, and the General Assembly passed the bill to be sent to the voters through a ballot referendum. If voters approve the bill, the legislative commissioners would be appointed by political party leadership in the state, with an equal number from the House and Senate and from each major party. For the citizen members, basically, five retired judges would pick from lists given to them by party leaders in the House and Senate.
If the commission fails to agree on a proposed map, or if the General Assembly rejects it, it goes back to the commission for another try. But if the group fails a second time, the Supreme Court of Virginia would decide how the maps are drawn. Meanwhile, voters will also decide a second constitutional amendment on a small tax cut for veterans, a frequent topic of past proposed amendments. The question: should a car or truck owned by a veteran with a 100 percent service-connected disability be free from state and local taxation?
In 2018, Virginia voters approved an amendment to allow surviving spouses of veterans with service-related disabilities to move residences and still claim their original property tax exemptions.