RICHMOND — Down the electoral ballot, Virginians are weighing a question about power over the political maps that will govern the state for the next decade.
Constitutional Amendment 1 would curb the legislature’s control over General Assembly and congressional districts ahead of redistricting in 2021, shifting map-drawing duties to a commission of lawmakers and citizens, and if they deadlock, to the right-leaning Virginia Supreme Court.
Whether the amendment is a good-government improvement to the current system or stands to destroy Democrats’ majorities in the legislature is an unsettled question, one so divisive that it brought yelling and cursing to the halls of the Capitol this spring, and recently delayed the adoption of the state budget.
The thorny, complicated issue is before millions of voters who are also preoccupied with control of the White House and Congress in the midst of a global crisis. Public campaigns urging voters to vote yay or nay have similar names, similar slogans and presumably the same goal: to end gerrymandering, the manipulation of district lines to favor one party.
In a time of hyperpolarization, left-leaning voters looking to their elected leaders for a sign will find a Democratic Party splintered up to the highest levels. Conservative voters, despite support for the amendment from GOP leaders, view it less favorably, recent polling showed.
It’s anyone’s guess what voters will make of the scramble before voting concludes on Election Day, but observers and polling suggest that as voters face the possibility of reforming the redistricting process, the odds favor the amendment.
“I’d be surprised if it doesn’t pass. The wording sounds like motherhood, apple pie and the flag. People have been talking about ending gerrymandering for years,” said longtime political analyst Larry Sabato. “But just below the surface, this is very, very controversial.”
‘What it does and doesn’t do’
Opposition to the amendment early on came from prominent members of the legislative Black caucus, particularly in the House. They argued that the exclusion of members of color from the committee that drafted the language was egregious, particularly as the state faced a lawsuit over racial gerrymandering in the House GOP’s 2010 maps. (That lawsuit was successful up to the Supreme Court.)
Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, one of the leading voices against the amendment, said the resulting product doesn’t include the kinds of protections for communities of color that redistricting reform should include, like a requirement that the map-drawing commission include people of color.
Price and most other Democrats in the House, the Democratic Party of Virginia and the Virginia chapter of the NAACP are part of the coalition opposing the amendment.
They’ve centered their message on the idea that, while reform is needed, the amendment is an imperfect product. In addition to concerns over minority groups, they’ve argued that true reform would come from a nonpartisan commission that doesn’t include lawmakers. They’ve also argued that the role of the Virginia Supreme Court, made up of mostly GOP-appointed judges, was designed to give Republicans now in the minority a fighting chance at regaining power.
“We’ve been able to talk to people about what it does and doesn’t do, and we’ve been making strides,” Price said. “I feel good about the energy.”
Reps. Don McEachin, D-4th, and Bobby Scott, D-3rd, have come out against the amendment, citing those arguments. McEachin, in a statement, called the lack of protections for communities long hurt by gerrymandering “troubling.”
“Amendment 1 fails to establish a requirement for the redistricting commission to represent the diversity of our beautiful commonwealth, or indeed any protections for communities of color,” McEachin said. “For too long, Black and Brown Virginians have borne the brunt of anti-democratic policies pushed in Richmond to reduce the power of our voices.”
Despite prominent supporters, the “no” campaign has failed to gain the same level of activity and funding as the “yes” campaign, a robust effort that has included TV ads.
The group Fair Districts VA has led the opposition campaign, raising a total $71,600, including $31,000 from the progressive group New Virginia Majority. The group reported $30,000 in cash earlier this month. To illustrate the divide, a Google search of the group yields first a paid digital ad for the “yes” campaign’s website.
(Other efforts in opposition to the amendment have sprung up outside Fair Districts, including one announced by Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, who plans to buy digital ads in the last week of the election cycle.)
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, a prominent opponent of the amendment, said debate over the question came during a crucial election cycle for Democrats.
“There are no big money interests behind what we’re trying to do,” Simon said. “It’s hard in a presidential year, when you have a lot of Democrats on the ballot. It’s money that could be spent defeating Trump, protecting Abigail Spanberger. How do you go to those folks and tell them we’re spending money on a long shot?”
‘It’s not perfect, but it’s so much better’
The coalition in support of Constitutional Amendment 1 is made up of strange bedfellows, reflective of the 2019 deal between Republicans and Democrats that led to the referendum.
Republicans, fearing their eventual loss of majorities in the legislature, agreed to the amendment language after years of rejecting reform proposals by Democrats. Now, GOP support for the plan continues as their best shot at influence over the redistricting process.
Ironically, a recent poll of likely voters from Christopher Newport University showed 42% of Republicans oppose the amendment while only 32% of Republicans support it. Among Democrats, 64% supported the amendment and just 12% opposed it.
“The conventional wisdom right now is that since the GOP is in the minority, that minority would support it and Democrats would have second thoughts. Surprisingly, a lot of GOP voters are tending to say no,” said Sen. Emmet Hanger, R-Augusta. “Across the board, the focus is trying to help people understand that extreme polarization hurts both parties.”
For Democrats who support it, the amendment is the only chance to deliver on redistricting reform in time for the 2021 redistricting process following the census.
Senate Democrats have overwhelmingly backed the amendment, securing its passage through a heated legislative session in the winter and spring. Some of the most vocal supporters include Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax.
Barker said that while it’s not perfect, the amendment will come with more citizen input, and more transparency around the map-drawing process.
Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats, have endorsed the constitutional amendment, as did Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th.
Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democratic party’s de-facto leader in the state, has declined to pick a side, at times helping usher the amendment while also arguing it’s not the only way to deliver redistricting reform, a key campaign promise.
“The governor has been a longtime advocate for nonpartisan redistricting reform, and firmly believes that voters should be choosing their representatives—not the other way around. There has been a robust conversation about this amendment, and he is continuing to urge Virginians to do their due diligence and cast their ballots accordingly,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said.
Asked how Northam voted on the question when he cast his ballot last month, Yarmosky declined to comment.
Fair Maps VA, the main arm for the “yes” campaign, has handily outraised opponents. The campaign has raised $1.8 million this year, and earlier this month reported $1.3 million in cash on hand. Its largest donation, at $1.1 million, came from the centrist group Unite America, which in 2019 backed two House Democrats and one Senate Republican running for the Virginia statehouse.
The effort also raised a half-million from a group backed by John Arnold and Laura Arnold, a wealthy Texas couple that funded redistricting reform efforts in four states in 2018.
“We certainly won’t reach everybody, we’re running a $2 million campaign. We’re getting the word out,” said Brian Cannon, executive director of the campaign who has worked for years on redistricting reform efforts under the group OneVirginia2021.
Restricting lingered quietly during the special session, as lawmakers debated police reform and COVID-19 relief. But as the work started to wrap up, language in the Senate budget to implement the amendment, if it passes, threatened to undo weeks of work on the state’s budget.
The legislation would set out a timeline for the work and details how citizen members would be selected. Statehouse leaders would submit a list of candidates, from which a group of retired judges would choose. The language says the selections must take into account the racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity of the state.
It also says leadership in the House and Senate can’t serve on the commission.
House Democrats opposing the amendment blocked the language, arguing that voters should vote on the amendment on its merits, without impermanent legislation to improve it.
The Northam administration stepped in to help broker a deal: the language and the budget would remain in limbo until voters decide the fate of the constitutional amendment.
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