Virginia Democrats send mixed messages on proposed gerrymandering solution this election

By Shannon Durazo

WASHINGTON – A rift has formed among Democrats in Virginia on whether to advise voters to approve a constitutional amendment establishing a bipartisan redistricting commission in an effort to end political gerrymandering.

The proposed measure, titled “Amendment 1” on ballots, would create a joint panel of citizens and lawmakers to handle redistricting, typically under the control of the General Assembly and governor. This type of reform has been supported in the past by Democrats, who for years claimed while Republicans controlled the General Assembly that they were unfairly drawing districts to their advantage that split minority communities. Just last year, Republican-led redistricting efforts were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court for being racially gerrymandered.

However, in 2019 Democratic lawmakers flipped the General Assembly and changed their tone on the proposed amendment, claiming it to be an ineffective solution. Now, the state Democratic Party officially opposes the measure, yet still some lawmakers in the house and senate have joined their Republican colleagues in support, creating mixed signals and causing confusion among voters.

“There is a lot of conflicting info about it because it has a really checkered past,” said Christine Holdeman, who will be voting against the amendment this election. 

Holdeman is a precinct captain with the Mt. Vernon Democratic Committee in Virginia, and said part of her job consists of informing voters at her district’s polling locations on why they should vote “no” on the measure. 

Holdeman said in a phone interview that there are “three key things wrong” with the amendment. They include no formal language that safeguards against partisan gerrymandering, the commission’s lack of independence and vulnerability to partisan influence, and that any redistricting deadlocks in the commission would be resolved by the conservative-majority state Supreme Court.

“If you read just the little blurb that they have on the ballot, it sounds okay, until someone told me that the Virginia state Supreme Court is six Republicans and one Democrat,” said Holdeman. “This amendment is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Michael “Mike” Schwartz said he voted in favor of the amendment, but that he “went back and forth on it quite a bit.” Schwartz, a former employee with the federal government and a resident of Herndon, said that one aspect of the amendment he thought was positive was the creation of a bipartisan committee, which he said he thinks would encourage more cooperation between the two major parties.   

“The amendment is not perfect I know, but in order to get legislation passed you have to make compromises sometimes,” said Schwartz in a phone interview. 

The argument that Amendment 1 is an “imperfect solution” but nonetheless a step towards equity and fairness is one that has been championed by Virginia-based advocacy groups that support the measure, including the AARP and League of Women Voters of Virginia. 

Chris DeRosa, the co-chair of the LWV-VA redistricting committee, said that the amendment was imperfect because it did not create a fully independent citizen commission as Democrats hoped for in the past, but she said nonetheless was an equitable solution that “fixed some of the problems of our current broken system.” 

DeRosa said in a phone interview that some problems that are fixed include a past lack of citizen representation in redistricting, the “cloak of secrecy” of closed partisan redistricting meetings, and other things like the issue of minority representation which she said would be alleviated through the new diversity requirement in the selection process of commissioners.

Holdeman said ultimately she did not think Virginia voters should approve a proposed solution to gerrymandering that is imperfect.

“If it’s not perfect, then why is it on the ballot?” said Holdeman. “It is just not at all a step in the right direction, it actually seems to be a step backwards.”

Maya Jones said that Democrats who support the amendment may fail to recognize the implications of lawmakers maintaining partial control over the redistricting process for those most affected by gerrymandering. Jones, who is the active diversity and inclusion chair of Arlington Young Democrats, said she knew personally what happens to minority communities when redistricting powers are given to the wrong individuals.

 “A lot of times this mostly affects people of color, and I know as a woman of color that when they draw districting lines all they do is split up the black community and make it difficult for us to organize,” said Jones in a phone interview.

“By allowing elected officials to make that decision, it is automatically allowing them to have more power than they should have.” 

Despite conflicting messages from within the Democratic party, according to a recent poll from Christopher Newport University the amendment is expected to pass with support from 48% of voters, the strongest support actually coming from Democratic voters who are more likely to back the amendment than Republicans.

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