The ballot language in Amendment 1 is confusing. It was designed to be. Its proponents are trying to masquerade gerrymandering as reform. They don’t expect you to read the Amendment itself.
One proponent is the Senate Democrat who drew 2011 lines to favor Democrats and his own district. The other is the House Republican, former Elections Committee Chair, who crafted the 2011 racial House gerrymander to favor Republicans and personally squashed reform efforts for almost two decades.
They won’t tell you under Amendment 1, four party leaders and their nominees draw all the lines. Don’t be fooled by ballot language that says “citizens” will be appointed. It’s not like anyone can apply. Last night, I regretfully informed someone who proudly described his independence from either party that he could not serve. He’s not a family member or close colleague of a party leader who promised to do their bidding. He doesn’t stand a chance.
The ballot language won’t tell you just two legislators can scuttle the commission, even if no one else wants to. That sends redrawing of state lines, with scant guardrails against gerrymandering, to the Virginia Supreme Court, a body chosen by the self-same illegally-racially-gerrymandered Republican legislature that voters booted out of office in 2019: a judicial body knowing it will be reappointed by the very legislative body it designs.
To cynics questioning legislators’ motivations, remember it was gerrymandering legislators who crafted Amendment 1: old-guard Senate Democrats trying to protect incumbents and House Republicans striving to create maps with a decidedly Republican tilt. The YES side has taken millions (90%+ of their funds) from out-of-state billionaires and dark-money interests that gerrymandered North Carolina. Their motives are clear.
But what about cynics who say they can’t trust the NO side either, scrappy reformers outspent 100 to 1 and new to the legislature since 2011? What will stop us from going over to the dark side, grasping Tolkien’s fabled ring, and gerrymandering ourselves?
To prevent this, we tied our own hands. In 2020, we became the first legislature in the nation to pass a law banning redistricting from unduly favoring any political party and to protect communities of interest, guaranteeing racial and ethnic minorities a seat at the table (HB1255).
So if Virginians vote NO on 1, we legally can’t gerrymander in 2021, even if we want to. In fact, we can go even further and install a nonpartisan independent citizens commission to redistrict. Republicans who opposed our efforts would have to agree, lest Democrats alone draw the lines.
What about 2022 and beyond? Ropes tying our hands in 2021 could unravel if a new legislature were to repeal our efforts. So I’ve proposed a constitutional amendment (HJ143) devised by anti-gerrymandering political scientists to build and improve on HB1255. Its “objective criterion of fairness” uses past Virginia elections to mathematically model newly-drawn districts so if Virginians vote equally for two parties, legislative results would expect to come out 50-50 as well.
Virginians are increasingly removing wool pulled over our eyes and are angry about being deceived. Support for the amendment has plummeted 40 points in the polls from last December to today. The race will be tight.
But don’t you be fooled. If you believe in democracy – namely that the party with the most votes should control the legislature – vote NO on Amendment 1.
Mark Levine represents Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax in the Virginia House of Delegates.